House bills seek lower FOIA costs
Since 1976 when Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) was introduced, several elements of the law have been amended to improve transparency of government actions. Several bills proposed in the House seek to lower costs associated with FOIA requests and establish a method of appealing request denials without going to court.
State Rep. Mike Shirkey’s proposal, House Bill 4001, seeks to cap the copy charge imposed for requested documents at 10 cents per copy and require that a government entity not charge a fee for a FOIA requestor making copies with their own equipment during an on-site records inspection authorized by this law.
“Costs associated with FOIA had grown to the point they had become a barrier to information the public was otherwise supposed to ordinarily have,” Shirkey said.
By establishing this cap on fees and open-access approach to FOIAs, the proposal is meant to make requests for information convenient and accessible for those interested.
“The FOIA is an important public tool, but it has to be one that the public can afford to use,” Shirkey said.
The proposal also strives to reduce the amount charged for FOIA-related administrative and copying costs by 20 percent for each day its response exceeds the five-day statutory deadline, and it will increase the punitive awards to a person who successfully challenges an improper FOIA denial from $500 to $5,000.
Also looking to reform the current Michigan FOIA is House Bill 4314, which would create an open government commission in the Secretary of State’s Office that would look further into citizen complaints about noncompliance with FOIA laws and map out actions to be taken against a public institution.
The bill, proposed by Rep. Tom McMillin, would allow citizens to appeal FOIA denials without having to go through an extensive legal process.
“If folks believe an exclusion is being given, and they feel it’s not in line with the law, their only option is to go to court,” McMillin said. “The average person can’t spend that kind of money, and even for larger media outlets, it’s becoming quite cost prohibitive.”
At the federal level, FOIA was passed in 1966 as a way of ensuring the public would have access to federal information and records.
The federal statute provides access to federal agency records, except to the extent records are protected from disclosure by specific exemptions.
Since this is a law put in place for the benefit of the public, anyone is eligible to make a request, even students at Grand Valley State University.
Though it is a good start to initially bring up any request verbally, FOIA requests are to be submitted in writing to the University Counsel Office and must include a reasonable description of the public records sought and the name and address of the government official or establishment believed to have possession of the desired records.
After submission, university personnel review the request and assist, guide and cooperate with the University Counsel Office to allow the school to process the FOIA in a timely manner. The FOIA officer in charge of review through the university will respond to the request within five business days, with the exception of a possible 10-day extension period.
A fee of 5 cents will apply to each page printed to fill the request made through the University Counsel Office, unless GVSU declares that the requested material is in public interest.
For more information, visit www.gvsu.edu/uco.