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