Local governments in Ingham, Eaton and Clinton counties received more than 890 public records requests in 2018, according to an analysis by Spartan Newsroom.
These requests were made by individuals, companies and organizations, who used the Michigan Freedom of Information Act to attempt to collect records held by local units of government. The state law, also known as FOIA, requires most government records be available to the public.
These records seekers may be looking out for their own interests — requesting information on property they own or wish to buy, or seeking records related to doing business with the local unit — but some public records requests are made in the public interest. These “watchdogs” may be seeking information to help the public understand important issues or to hold government officials accountable for their actions.
Meridian Township received public records requests from several organizations last year requesting purchasing records, election records, fire records, human resource data and more.
“The requests we receive for business purposes are mostly to gather data and information,” Meridian Township Clerk Brett Dreyfus said. “For example, say an organization sells office supplies. They can put in a FOIA request to our office to request records of what the building has purchased in the past so they can sell us their products.”
Dreyfus said the township also routinely gets public records requests from news organizations, specifically for investigative journalism.
“A lot of newspapers use FOIA requests as a source for records,” Dreyfus said. “Some of the information we provide used to be a person’s entire job.”
Another type of organization that commonly make public records requests are real estate-related companies.
“The most calls we get are from Realtors seeking information on parcels,” said Dorothy Hart, the clerk in Locke Township, northeast of Williamston.
Legal descriptions in public records can tell a real estate agent the exact dimensions of a property, which might be needed to list a property for sale.
“They are looking for either a sketch of buildings on the parcel or a legal description,” Hart said.
Other property records might be used by title companies, construction and engineering firms or developers.
Watching over the government
Illinois-based American Transparency filed public records requests with local governments throughout Clinton County in 2018. The nonprofit group runs OpenTheBooks.com, a website that publishes data about government operations.
“OpenTheBooks.com is the largest private repository of U.S. public-sector spending,” said Adam Andrzejewski, CEO of American Transparency and OpenTheBooks.com. “Our mission is to post ‘every dime, online, in real time.'”
In the past year, the group has filed more than 60,000 public records requests in all 50 states, Andrzejewski said.
The data they collect is available on their website and as an app. Data sets include government employee salaries and state and local government spending — information that’s public record, but may not be viewable without a trip to the city or township hall.
“Sunshine Week is like our Christmas holiday,” Andrzejewski said.
Doing business with the government
Hernden, Virginia-based Deltek is among the companies that have filed public records requests in the area.
“Simply put, we use it to compile data that our customers can then use to for further analysis,” said Christopher Lanphear, an associate research analyst at Deltek.“This can be market research, contract negotiation, bid or proposal preparation, etc.”
Lanphear works on public records requests for government procurement contract and award information. This is data that is usually readily available, but in the case that it is not, Lanphear uses FOIA to fill in the gaps. This process eliminates the research step for Deltek’s clients.
“By doing this, we are ultimately lowering the cost of the project and essentially lowering the cost on taxpayers,” Lanphear said.
Individuals filing FOIA requests
Individuals may have a variety of reasons to request public records.
Stockbridge resident Greg Uihlein, who ran unsuccessfully for village trustee last year, said he’s filed public records requests to get information regarding village’s budget.
“I wanted to see how much money they had in reserves,” Uihlein said. “That’s the reason for my FOIA.”
Uihlein and his wife also own a real estate business. He said he’s also used FOIA as a way to get information he needs for his real estate business.
“It’s easy to do that way,” Uihlein said.
Uihlein said he and his wife have only had a problem one not getting a timely response to a public records request. He said staff told him his email ended up in their spam folder.
Uihlein said he thinks most people don’t really understand what FOIA is about, but it’s an important tool for government transparency.
“It’s transparent and that keeps people from thinking that government can be hiding things,” Uihlein said, “although some stuff is absolutely secret and they will redact a lot of information.”