New Michigan FOIA Caps Per Page Fees, Drops Costs Further If Agencies Miss Response Deadlines

from the not-perfect-but-still-an-improvement dept

If all goes according to plan, this sort of thing won’t be happening in Michigan anymore.

It’s not at all clear if the police in Michigan are using the full extent of these [cellphone data-slurping] tools, and that’s what the ACLU was curious about. So, it filed a Freedom of Information Act request on the matter… and was told that it would cost $544,680 to get that information. That doesn’t sound like “freedom” of information, now does it?

A new state FOIA law [pdf link], signed recently by Governor Rick Snyder (and shepherded through the 2-year process by then-State Rep., now Senator Mike Shirkey), puts a limit on how much government agencies can charge to fulfill requests.

Public records will become cheaper and easier to access under changes to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.

Government agencies will not be allowed to charge more than 10 cents per page for copies of public records; they can face increased fines for delaying responses, and people seeking the records now can sue if they consider the fees to be exorbitant.

This capped per-page amount should prevent entities like the ACLU being charged a half-million dollars for a records request. Not to single out the Michigan police, but it seems to be one government agency that treats FOIA requests like get-rich-quick schemes.

Case in point is the corruption scandal involving Speaker Jase Bolger (R – Marshall) and Rep. Roy Schmidt (R – Grand Rapids).

The police report was some 2,000 pages of text messages, bank statements, and interviews surrounding the Speaker’s election rigging scheme in Grand Rapids, and the Michigan State Police Post in Ionia told anyone who wanted a copy of that report to pony up $1,896.30, including $73.83 in hourly compensation for a detective to pull the records.

This cap would turn $1800 into about $20.00. This isn’t going to sit well with government agencies who have used high fees to reduce their transparency. Expect those to address the “problem” by chalking up more hourly fees to make up for the “lost revenue.” This, too, is addressed in the law’s language, which forbids the charging of “arbitrary or capricious fees.” But at the end of it all, there’s nothing in the punishments section that will actually deter agencies from doing exactly that.

The law allows requesters who believe they are being overcharged for records to sue and ask a court to lower the fee. If the court concludes the public body arbitrarily and capriciously charged an unreasonable fee, the court must assess $1,000 in punitive damages.

The new law also increases punitive damages from $500 to $2,000 on public bodies that arbitrarily and capriciously break the law by refusing or delaying the release of public records.

It also requires courts to fine public bodies $2,500 to $7,500 for willfully and intentionally failing to follow the law. The fines are paid to the state.

When the state collects a fine from a state agency, it’s little more than money being passed back and forth under the disapproving glare of an overseer. In some cases, the money may transfer from a city to the state, but in no case will it ever pass from the person authorizing the forbidden behavior to the taxpayers. This isn’t even a hand slap. It barely rises to the level of a disappointed sigh.

On the other hand, it does work out a little better for the citizens making the requests. If the court finds in the requester’s favor, they may be awarded damages. On top of that, the law adds an additional requirement tied to agencies’ pockets that should expedite request fulfillment.

If a government misses a deadline for responding to a request, it must discount the fees charged by 5% for each day the response is late. The maximum discount is 50%.

It looks pretty good on paper, but the implementation may not be as smooth. Without a doubt, any request that makes its way into the court system can expect several rounds of challenges and appeals. The same goes for any agency’s stalling tactics. While this law does apply a much-needed cap, it still leaves room for abuse and its deterrents will do little to stop arbitrary fees and long, expensive court battles — the latter of which use taxpayer funds to defend the withholding of taxpayer-funded documents from taxpayers.

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Comments on “New Michigan FOIA Caps Per Page Fees, Drops Costs Further If Agencies Miss Response Deadlines”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

'...paid for by the applicable department head.'

Just seven little words and it would have some real teeth, and provide some real motivation to those receiving FOIA requests. If the one running an agency or department knew that their pay would be docked if a court finds against them or their department, then they might care about responding in a timely and reasonable manner.

As long as the money paid out continues to be taxpayer money though, they will not care, because they have no reason to.

beltorak (profile) says:

Fines for Late Work

You know when private entities contract a job and there’s a financial penalty for late delivery, there’s no bullshit “50% cap”.

If it wasn’t for the fact that it’s all taxpayer money anyway, I’d say we should do to them what the FISA court did to yahoo. A 250,000 dollar per day fine, to double every week, until they comply.

GEMont (profile) says:

Rant Warning

I find it eternally comical that so many folks post here about what “We The People” should do to fix government problems, like the above where “we” should impose a $250,000 a day fine upon a government agency until they do their job right.

Its impressive how long it takes for a once pseudo-free nation to realize its been completely stripped of its rights to interfere in the activities of its government.

For sure it would be nice if there was some sort of agency or section of government that was actually working for the People. It would be great if Americans could voice their anger and ideas and there was some official department of government that listened and acted upon those grievances and ideas.

Then some of these suggestions might actually be put into effect and end this farce that should be called Lack of Information Act, along with the hundreds of other farces that have been foisted upon the public by the federal government of the United Snakes.

However, since all the employees working for the federal government, are working purely for the federal government, and the millionaire members of the federal government hierarchy are working purely for their retirement jobs on wall street, and to fill those 30’x 50′ offshore bank vaults with detoured tax dollars and gold bullion, it appears that no public input into government machinations will be tolerated in the United States of Hollywood.

I wonder if Americans will ever figure this out.

A decade of semi-legal public surveillance, court negligence over false testimony by police, stop and frisk procedures, no-fly lists, militarized cops, false arrests for taking pictures, and all of the other police state activities that obviously represent a fascist government in action, have simply not made much of an impression on the people of the land of the once upon a time free.

Since its obviously not stupidity, or ignorance, it must be apathy and a sense of helplessness that has turned the Home of the Brave, into the Mega-Ranch of the Cowed and Chained.

I wonder, every time I read the comments here on TechDirt, what it will take to wake the sleeping giant, or if the old American Spirit is actually dead.

Pragmatic says:

Re: Rant Warning

RE: “Federal Government,” state govts. are just as bad.

Badly-behaved police are not employed by the federal government, but by the local authorities.

RE: accountability, etc., the American spirit is divided between Red Team, Blue Team, and the small minority of sensible people who refuse to be part of the problem.

Solution: call out partisan BS every time you see it.

Call out big L Libertarianism/anti-government on principle nutbaggery every time you see it – ask them to define the word “mob.” That ought to do it.

Keep on speaking out against the status quo AND recommending workable solutions, e.g. alternative candidates.

We get what we vote for and until we have persuaded enough people to vote otherwise, we’ll be getting the same old corporate snouts in the local, state, and federal troughs for the next hundred years.

The giant is not asleep, it wants a quick [preferably violent and final] fix [before it rides off into the sunset blowing smoke off the barrel of its Colt 45] because it has a short attention span and is unwilling to take responsibility for cleaning up a decades-old mess.

Until enough of us are willing to get together to deal firmly and consistently with this, we’re stuck with it. We can all be part of the solution. Who’s with me?

GEMont (profile) says:

Re: Re: Rant Warning

The hardest part of this situation, is the lack of solutions. We know the enemy and we know his tactics, but he has all the cards and two spare decks up his sleeves.

I think that most people are already, at least slightly suspicious of government’s corruption, although I am certain that not even those who believe the whole game is rigged, are aware of just how deep the corruption goes or to what extent such people as inhabit the halls of power are willing to go to get what the want.

I think that a huge portion of the public simply assumes that there is nothing that can be done about the whole mess anyway and is just trying to lay low, and stay under the radar, in the hopes that they die before fan and feces meet.

Its funny in a way, when you actually understand how fragile the whole game has become. All it would take to end the entire fascist take-over of the USA is for the public to simply stop being consumers, all at once, and stay at it till the wheels of this machine ground to a halt.

It is for this reason that the fascists must use the tactics of terror to keep the public from gathering its feet under itself and becoming the large unstoppable force that it always has been. As long as we fear each other and seek refuge and security in the outstretched arms of our oppressors, we remain weak and ineffectual, and perfect sheep.

While I will never join or participate in any armed insurrection, (unless they shoot first), knowing full well that fighting fire with fire in this case is doomed to fail, I will continue to poke this beast with a pointy stick until the day it finally turns and eats me, or until I break its skin and find its heart.


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