March 11-17 is Sunshine Week, so we checked to see how well the sun shines in Ingham County. Let’s call it mostly cloudy with some bright spots.
Sunshine refers to light that the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts bring to government. The laws are intended to help citizens see how their governments operate and spend their money.
On Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 29, the Spartan Online News Network, powered by Michigan State University journalism students, emailed most of the municipalities and school districts in Ingham County with a simple request. The students asked how many Freedom of Information Act requests these entities had received in each of the five preceding years. They cited the FOIA in their requests.
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act says local government should respond or ask for an extension within five business days. We felt the request could be answered quickly, without straining local clerks. In some cases, this was true. In others, we have not heard back, long after the five-day response period has passed.
Some communities answered immediately, others denied the request and invited us to sue them in Circuit Court, as the law provides. Three, so far, have set fees ranging from $5 to $40 to perhaps more. In one case, we were told that this is just a crummy time of year to follow the Freedom of Information Act.
There is a lack of consistency about how easily governments make it easy for citizens to use the Freedom of Information Act and several reported glitchy email systems or websites. Some small communities have trouble complying with requests and others seem to do OK. In many cases, it might help to centralize FOIA requests.
There is great inconsistency in how the law is obeyed and whether and how such requests are tracked. Some of the inconsistency is our fault. It is not always clear how communities want to be contacted. We usually emailed clerks and school superintendents. In one case, we did not send our email on the 29th and in another we asked for just four years’ numbers.
We have rated the communities’ responses, five stars to none, recognizing which local governments were most responsive. We gave three or more stars to responsive governments and tended to give people the benefit of the doubt. Two stars or fewer indicates problems. The five-stars are our FOIA heroes.
The Michigan Press Association and longtime journalist Janet Mendler prompted us to undertake this exercise.
We encourage our readers to become more familiar with the Freedom of Information Act, which is there for all of us, by playing the Ray of Sunshine Game.
More information is on the Sunshine Week website.
Five stars: Supplied information within 24 hours, sooner than required
Four stars: Supplied information within two-three days, sooner than required
Three stars: Supplied information within four-five business days
Two stars: Responded within five days, but without information
One star: Did not respond within five days, required fees, did not have information on FOIA requests or denied the request and suggested we sue them.
No stars: Did not respond
Requested Feb. 29. Township Clerk Evan Hope Responded by email within three hours.
Requested Feb. 29: Sherry Feazel, clerk assessor, responded morning of March 1 by email.
Requested Feb. 29. Clerk Dorothy G. Hart responded within 24 hours by email.
City of Mason
Requested Feb. 29. No response, so we called on March 12. Clerk Deborah Wiertniewicz said the city never received the request. She emailed the information within 30 minutes of the phone call.
Okemos Public Schools
Requested Feb. 29. Superintendent Catherine Ash responded within 24 hours by email.
Village of Stockbridge
Requested Feb. 29. Village Clerk Timothy Sadowski emailed information within an hour of request.
Requested March 12. Within one day a township spokesperson said it does not have numbers for 2007 and 2008 because, according to law, they only need to keep records for the two previous years.
Dansville Public Schools
Requested Feb. 29. Responded March 1 with different information: Twenty-six total FOIA requests over the past five years. We did not ask for a year-by-year breakdown.
Ingham County Intermediate School District
Requested Feb. 29. FOIA Coordinator Micki O’Neil responded March 2 and said there are no historical listings of the number of FOIA requests before 2009.
Ingham County Sheriff’s Department
Requested Feb. 29. Amy Mentik called back the day we made the request with almost complete results, which we accepted.
2007: Not readily available
Leslie Public Schools
Requested Feb. 29. Responded on March 5.
Mason Public Schools
Requested Feb. 29. Called March 12 and Tina Wood, administrative assistant to the superintendent, gave the information during the phone call. Wood said that during the five years, only one request was denied due to government exemptions.
2007: We did not request this year
Requested Feb. 29. Clerk JoAnne Kean called on March 2 and said it would cost $15/hour to find the information. On March 12, we emailed asking whether the charge would be more than $100. On March 13, Deputy Clerk Susan Kosier replied that the cost would be minimal and that the clerk is away at a seminar and the deputy would do her best to fulfill request. On March 14, an email from the clerk’s office reported the numbers:
The fee, for half an hour of work, was $7. We paid by check.
Requested Feb. 29. No response as of March 12, so we called. On March 13, Office Manager Virginia Coffman emailed, “2008 we had three, 2009 none, 2010 four and 2011 one. We try to be user friendly so most requests are done at the counter when they come in. Other requests are for tax info and done thru the fax requests. There are a lot of those which will take some more to count. Let me know if this is sufficient.”
East Lansing Police Department
Request emailed on Feb. 29, police department dated it as March 5 and responded on March 8 that the information was available for pickup at a cost of $5.
Haslett Public Schools
Requested Feb. 29. Responded March 6.
East Lansing Public Schools
Requested Feb. 29. Responded within 24 hours, requesting payment of $40. We did not pursue.
Holt Public School District
Responded: Within five business days, we received a form letter by email from Freedom of Information Officer W. Scott Szpara. The email quoted Michigan’s FOIA: “We do not have a report that contains this information and therefore your request is being denied on the basis that no such document exists with the above information.
“Because your request made under the Freedom of Information Act was denied, you are being provided with notice of your right to seek judicial review to compel disclosure of public records by commencing an action in the circuit court. An individual who prevails in such an action shall be awarded reasonable attorney’s fees, costs and disbursements where the court finds that the public body has acted arbitrarily and capriciously, and the court may also award punitive damages in the amount of $500.00. A full explanation of your right to seek judicial review is set forth in Section 10 of the Freedom of Information Act.”
requested Feb. 29: No response as of March 12. Called March 12, office closes at 4 p.m. Reached someone on March 13 who said that the request most likely did not get through the website and that there probably haven’t been any requests, anyway. The person was more helpful than the website.
Village of Webberville
Request sent on Feb. 29, no response as of March. 12.
Called clerk on March. 12, someone in clerk’s office said the information had been sent, but it was not in our email. The person said the clerk would send the information on the 13th and that happened.
Bunker Hill Township
Emailed requests on Feb. 29 and March 6.
Ingham County Clerk
Requested Feb. 29. No response as of March 12, left voice mails on March 12 and 14.
Requested Feb. 29. We made followup call on March 13 and were told that the township has had only three requests in the previous five years, all from journalism students asking how many FOIA requests the township gets.
City of Leslie
Requested Feb. 29 in emails to the clerk and deputy clerk. No response by March 12, so we called. Deputy clerk said we needed to talk to the clerk. We left messages for the clerk on March 12 and 14.
Requested Feb. 29. Left voice mails March 12 and 14.
Stockbridge Community Schools
Request sent Feb. 29, no response as of March 12.
On Feb. 29, at 12:15 p.m., we spoke with Kris Laukhner, treasurer, regarding the FOIA request because Mary Wilson, township clerk, was not available. We were told to email Wilson and did at 12:31 p.m. that day. We received no reply.
On March 12, we called Wilson and she said she had forwarded the email to Laukhner to discuss with the assessor, who was coming on Friday. Wilson then instructed us to call Laukhner to discuss the matter.
Laukhner said that they do not have a specific number of requests for the township because they are in different departments. She said she would not even know how to go about finding the number.
She said part of the problem is that some FOIA requests are part of forms that tax companies fill out. Companies that request the whole tax roll have to use the FOIA, but companies that do not want the whole roll do not have to use the FOIA. Laukhner said that it is too difficult during tax season to obtain this information. (The deadline for winter tax payments is Feb. 14.)
Laukner said that they try to answer some tax roll requests without requiring FOIAs to reduce the number of FOIA requests so they do not have to deal with a lot of information being sent back and forth. She concluded by saying that this request is low priority due to it being the end of tax season. She added that it is a crummy time of year to be digging through stuff and that if she gets a chance she will try and get the information.
Webberville Public Schools
Requested Feb. 29. On March 12, called superintendent’s office, left message, response was emailed.
White Oak Township
Requested Feb. 29. No response by March 12. Left messages March 13 and 14.
City of Williamston
Requested Feb. 29. Within 24 hours, FOIA Coordinator Holly Thompson sent a form letter. It said “Denied, requested record(s) exempt from disclosure for the following reasons: A public record does not exist under the name given or by another name reasonably known by the FOIA Coordinator.” The letter spelled out the appeals process, including court action against the city.
Williamston Community Schools
Requested Feb. 29. No response by March 12. We called and We were told that the email most likely went to spam and we were given an email for the assistant to the superintendent. We resubmitted the request.
First request sent on March 11.
Requested Feb. 29. Plan to call March 15