In May, the Mackinac Center filed a public records request with the University of Michigan in order to get documents and data which allegedly supported Gov. Whitmer's spring shutdowns. The executive office is exempt from records requests and the Center had previously been denied a FOIA to the state, so we asked for documents between university and state employees. The information was denied for months and, when ultimately provided, was heavily redacted or withheld.
On May 13, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the University of Michigan asking for records of any correspondence between three university employees and anyone with an official state government email address. A second request was filed on May 27, which expanded the first to include all correspondence concerning the Michigan Safe Start Plan.
The University of Michigan responded with a cost estimate of $2,124 for the first request and an additional $170 for the second.
On Aug. 20, the university stated that it was ready to provide the documents, and the entire balance was paid. U-M mishandled accounting for the payment, however, and the documents were not received until October.
Citing a “frank communications” exemption, the university refused to provide a significant amount of the documents. The Mackinac Center appealed in October, and the appeal was partially granted by the university, but the documents were still heavily redacted.
According to Michigan law, the “frank communications” exemption can be used for communications between two public bodies if 1) they are more than purely factual; 2) they are advisory in nature; and 3) they are preliminary to a policy decision or determination. If those factors are met, and the public’s interest in encouraging frank communications clearly outweighs the public’s interest in obtaining information in the particular instance, the exemption may be granted.
The Mackinac Center holds that the public interest in knowing how the state is forming its response to the COVID-19 pandemic is overwhelming and is one of the only ways to gather information on how these decisions were made. The governor’s office continues to be exempt from FOIA.