Big or little, governments must manage public records requests

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Capital News Service

LANSING — Ramona Smith was a trustee for Greenbush Township in rural Clinton County when she became concerned by a lack of transparency.

So she decided to run for clerk.

In 2016, Smith and four other township candidates won office on a shared platform of transparency.

“Our residents would know when we were spending their money and how we were spending their money,” she said. “Anything they wanted to know, we were open to that.”

That’s the guiding principle behind the 1976 Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act that provides public access to records.

But just how –and how fast–local governments respond varies, due in part to resources.

Students in four classes in the Michigan State University School of Journalism, working together for the Spartan Newsroom, filed public records requests with most of the 79 cities and townships in Clinton, Eaton and Ingham counties — as well as the counties themselves. The requests sought logs of all public records requests in 2018.

Smaller communities — where local government is run directly by elected officials with few full-time employees — were less likely to keep formal logs, the project found.

The requests, often referred to as FOI or FOIA requests, ranged widely from a copy of the emergency response plan for Potterville’s water supply system to property records in Lansing.

Under the law, anyone can request any government document and, with certain exemptions, they’ll receive it. About 25 specific exemptions give public officials the right to keep some records secret.

Not surprisingly, more populous municipalities received more FOIA requests, Spartan Newsroom’s research shows.

Some smaller governments did not receive a single request in a year. East Lansing, the area’s second-largest city, received 147 requests.

In comparison, Greenbush Township, population 2,200, has received only two requests since Smith became clerk in 2016. Ten minutes east in Clinton County, Duplain Township, population 2,400, had three. “Because we’re a small town, it doesn’t make us any less important,” Township Clerk Richard Bates said.

One factor driving the disparity in the number of requests is the amount of development. Most of East Lansing’s 2018 records requests dealt with planning and development issues.

In Delta Township in Eaton County, which has 33,000 residents and received 81 public records requests, property transfers are among the most requested records, said township Manager Brian Reed, who serves as the FOIA coordinator.

It took Delta Township four days to provide its FOIA log.

‘Transparency is very important’

Another factor driving the difference is how government and public interact, Michigan Press Association general counsel Robin Luce Herrmann said.

Herrmann says residents in smaller towns may not have to file formal requests to get information. They may have a personal relationship with government officials or may find it easier to visit government offices and just ask.

Speaking from experience, Bates in Duplain Township agrees.

“I feel that all politics is local, and we’re not much different out here. We just have small issues,” Bates said. “The local people hardly ever file a FOIA because they know they can come to the township meeting or stop you on the street.”

State and local governments have five days to respond to a public records request, although agencies can request a 10-day extension.

Even with a large number of requests, East Lansing City Clerk Jennifer Shuster said she likes to avoid the 10-day extension because she wants to get information out as quickly as possible.

It took East Lansing three hours to fulfill Spartan Newsroom’s request. “I believe transparency is very important to the city of East Lansing,” Shuster said.

Delays and violations

Failure to grant or deny a request within five days is one of the most common violations of FOIA. Herrmann said smaller communities may lack awareness of the law.

The law was updated in 2015, and some communities have been slow to adapt — although resources are available.

Bates said he relies heavily on the Michigan Townships Association handbook of public records guidelines, adding that the handbook is “worth its weight in gold.”

Bates responded within hours to the request for the township’s 2018 records log — it had two requests.

In Herrmann’s view, officials must understand FOIA in the same way they understand financial statements. The Michigan Municipal League, MSU Extension and the Michigan Association of School Boards offer training, she said.

Creating a process

Smith, the FOIA coordinator in Greenbush Township, said filling requests can be daunting.

Greenbush initially failed to provide the township’s public records log requested by email but had a follow-up conversation with a Spartan Newsroom reporter. Before 2013, the township didn’t have an FOIA procedure. Smith approached the Michigan Townships Association for advice.

“The MTA asked: Do you have a FOIA form?” she said. It didn’t have a form, a process for handling FOIA requests or a lawyer to help establish either, so officials found a lawyer and put a procedure in place.

It’s this kind of effort, Herrmann says, that even the smallest governments must do to stay compliant with the law..

Having a system can also help if a more challenging request is filed. Last year, Greenbush Township and many local governments received a request for 2016 election information. Someone identified only as “Emily” from United Impact Group made most requests.

The effort was later connected to a voting rights nonprofit affiliated with a Democratic super political action committee, but the mysterious nature of the request put many local officials on edge.

“FOIAs are quite complicated,” Smith said. “I was quite comfortable with our own township ones.”

She’s less comfortable with large requests from non-local requesters.

“That’s quite a bigger concern because it’s something legally you have to do.”

Andrew Blok, Kalea Hall and Kurt Williams report for Spartan Newsroom.

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