What kinds of records are people asking for from area local governments? Who is asking for records? And how well are government officials doing at responding?
Those are a few of the questions we had as we mobilized students from four Michigan State University School of Journalism classes — three undergraduate public affairs reporting classes and a master’s level reporting class — to take on a joint project to explore public records in our community.
We’re proud to present our reporting from this effort during Sunshine Week, a collaborative initiative to promote open government push back against excessive official secrecy. The week coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, father of the Constitution and a key advocate of the Bill of Rights.
Each of our MSU students was assigned to file a public records request with one or more of the 79 cities and townships in Clinton, Eaton and Ingham counties — as well as the counties themselves. The requests asked for logs of all public records requests received in 2018. As of this writing, we’ve counted more than 890 records requests in 2018 from 45 of those local governments — and that’s not counting law enforcement records requests in most of those places. (We haven’t yet been able to account for every local government because, in some cases, we ran out of students to assign to communities and in a few situations we’re still waiting for work to be turned in.)
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act — which requires most government records be available to the public — does not require local governments to keep a formal log of public records request. But we found that many area local governments keep one anyway as a simple method for organizing and tracking those requests.
And even when a local government didn’t have a log — in most cases, these were small governments with just a few records requests each year — we often found local officials who, without being asked, provided a summary of those records for our students anyway. We appreciate the time elected officials and government employees spent with our students.
In general, we found that our local government officials respond to a lot of seemingly mundane requests. But each of those requests is important somehow to the person making the request — and that’s the point of FOIA.
If we have a government “of the people, by the people, for the people” — to quote Abraham Lincoln, then we need a government that freely shares even the most seemingly mundane bits of information with those people.
Thank you to my colleagues, professors Joe Grimm and Geri Alumit Zeldes, and their public records army of JRN 300 students, who provided the grunt work to make this project possible. Reporting on the stories in this project are by students in JRN 801: Multiple Media Reporting II, who are in various stages of working on their master’s degrees in journalism.
We hope this becomes just the first in a series of projects by our students to explore public records and other government transparency issues.