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Wednesday, February 17,2010

Half free

The Freedom of Information Act remains unchanged in Lansing, and it’s still not free

by Neal McNamara

An attempt by a Lansing City Council committee to construct an ordinance around the state Freedom of Information Act has ended after City Attorney Brig Smith advised that the statute can’t be changed.


The issue of a freedom of information ordinance came up over the summer after a request for arrest records related to a sexsting operation at Fenner Nature Center was denied.


“The more we delved into it, the question was do we have a written policy?” said At-Large Councilwoman Carol Wood, who chairs Public Safety Committee “We talked about the possibility of creating a written ordinance to better understand what happens with FOIA requests.”


The state Freedom of Information Act allows the public to request any state or local government document.


Smith returned an opinion to the Public Safety Committee on Jan. 26 saying that no other municipality in the state has enacted an ordinance complementing the FOIA statute, and can’t, because the statute can only be regulated by the state.


The Council also asked whether media FOIA requests could be done free of charge. Smith said no because it could violate equal protection granted by the U.S. Constitution.


“The FOIA act says you have a right to information, but it doesn’t say the information has to be free,” Smith said.


The FOIA statute allows members of the public a fee waiver up to $20 based on indigence. Wood said it was her idea to float giving FOIAs away to the media because the information would be disseminated to a wide audience.


In a written opinion, Smith argued that it would put an undue financial strain on the city to fill requests that could run into the thousands of dollars, citing a recent request from the Lansing State Journal for any records relating to traffic stops of state Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, D-Lansing. The city quoted the LSJ $14,000 for searching through the daily logs of Lansing Police officers. Smith also cited an outstanding balance of over $5,000 for FOIA requests from the media, and that seven media FOIA requests that asked for a deposit — which is done when a FOIA is especially expensive — were all abandoned.


A recent City Pulse FOIA request found 12 FOIAs over the last 24 months that were over $800. One request, from the IBEW Local 665, which asked for all incoming and outgoing emails, text messages, instant messages and phone records of Mayor Virg Bernero between Jan. 1 2007, and July 7 2009, was quoted at $44,000.


Still, the Council scored one victory in its quest to shake up FOIA practices: Each Council member will receive a copy of every FOIA request. Wood said that this could make
the flow of information easier for the media and the public because
Council members could simply get the information and pass it along.


Provided "it’s part of the public record, and as long as it’s not part of closed session.”


“I believe that the more transparent we are, it makes a better government, and allows the public to know what we’re doing.”

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