FOI Daily Dose: FOIA fines prompt change in Michigan; Washington city council tries private email trick; More public records controversy in California

Hefty FOIA fines prompt change in Michigan

Hefty fines for public records requests in Michigan rally support for the state’s House Bill 4001 aimed at limiting costs to 10 cents per page and eliminating the charge for on-sight inspection, according to the Oakland Press.

Residents and reporters are worried the state’s current fees for obtaining free information discourage the public from requesting records.

In Oakland Township, where the current cost is 25 cents per page plus labor, resident Marc Edwards racked up a nearly $2,500 bill for two FOIA requests with township officials. The bulk of the cost came from the 8,918 pages he requested in print, according to the Oakland Press.

House Bill 4001 was introduced Jan. 9 by Rep. Mike Shirkey. Along with lowering costs for the public, it raises fees from $500 to $5,000 for government agencies that delay or deny records requests. Government agencies would be allowed a 10-day extension, and after that, the cost of the request would drop 20 cents per day, the Press said.

Washington city council members discuss official business in private emails

Members of the Bainbridge Island City Council in Washington were caught discussing city business using private email accounts last week, and when the city asked them to turn over the emails pertaining to official business, some refused, according to the Bainbridge Island Review.

Discussing official business on private email accounts keeps information out of public reach and violates the city’s Manuel of City Governance adopted in 2010 that says council members “shall cease utilizing any private, public or proprietary email service other than the city’s, for the sending or receiving of any such emails that meet the definition of public records,” according to the Review.

More public records controversy in California

Although Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation loosening requirements for meeting open records requests on June 27, he remains committed to relieving the state of its financial burden for reimbursing local governments when they meet records requests, according to The Associated Press.

The same afternoon Brown signed the state budget, lawmakers proposed constitutional amendment SCA3 to save the state government millions of dollars a year by requiring local agencies to pay for fulfilling the records requests they receive. It’s currently pending before the Senate, and it needs two-thirds support from both houses to be placed on a statewide ballot next year, the AP said.

But while Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the amendment is aimed at strengthening open-government laws and holding local governments accountable, the Oakland Tribune’s editorial board is skeptical it might go too far.

The Tribune fears the amendment requires local governments to comply with the exemption-ridden Public Records Act and Brown Act open-meeting law, giving both acts “greater legal weight.”

They also said the amendment allows the legislature and governor to change the laws and, hence, the constitution at any time without voter approval.

Kara Hackett is SPJ’s Pulliam/Kilgore Freedom of Information intern, a freelance writer and a free press enthusiast. Contact her at khackett@spj.org or on Twitter: @KaraHackett.

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