The Mackinac Center for Public Policy has filed a lawsuit against the city of Westland for what they say is an illegal fee on people seeking public information.
CASE UPDATE: The City of Westland restructured its charges for public documents to make them FOIA compliant.
In June of this year, Capitol Confidential sent Freedom of Information Act requests to every municipality in the state which operates a golf course seeking financial information. Westland responded that the city requires a $5 fee up front before they will provide any information.
Westland also charged $1 per page for copying costs and $45.61 per hour for the person gathering the information.
According to Michigan’s FOIA law, public entities may only charge “a fee for a public record search, the necessary copying of a public record for inspection, or for providing a copy of a public record.” This money “shall be limited to actual mailing costs, and to the actual incremental cost of duplication or publication including labor, the cost of search, examination, review and the deletion and separation of exempt from nonexempt information.”
Mackinac Center attorney Patrick Wright said that each of those fees are illegal.
“Charging a $5 fee to simply start the process is just a roadblock the city has put up to try and discourage people from participating in the democratic process,” Wright said. “If it can be $5, then why not $1,000?”
Wright also said that the fees for copying and processing are unreasonable, noting that a UPS store right across the street charges 10 cents per copy.
“Why does the government charge 10 times as much as the private sector?” Wright asked. “We’re not asking for calligraphy on gold-leaf parchment.”
The FOIA statute says “a public body may not charge more than the hourly wage of the lowest paid public body employee capable of retrieving the information necessary to comply with a request under this act.” This means that the city believes the lowest-paid person who can supply the records earns about $95,000 per year in total compensation.
Westland city clerk Eileen DeHart told Mackinac Center investigative reporter Anne Schieber that the bill is “part of our fee schedule.”
“I have a FOIA file about that big of people who filed FOIA’s who never come back to pay for them before we instituted the fee,” said DeHart. “Now they come back and get them.”
But FOIA is the law.
“This law is supposed to be fast and efficient for the public so that we can participate in the democratic process,” said Wright.
In a response to the lawsuit, Westland dropped its $5 gatekeeper fee, reduced the costs of copies from $1 per page to $.10 per page, and agreed to use the lowest paid possible employee to make copes. The city also paid the Center’s attorney’s fees.