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Michigan House Committee holds hearing on FOIA reform

Stressing the need for transparency in public government, the Michigan House Government Oversight, Ethics and Reform Committee listened to testimony Tuesday that will serve as a starting point on reforming the Michigan Freedom of Information Act law.

Todd Heywood, Senior Reporter for Michigan Messenger, testified in front of the committee at the request of chairman Rep. Tom McMillin and discussed the challenges he and other members of the media have faced while attempting to obtain public information through FOIA requests.

“When we request public documents which could be controversial, we have found that public bodies produce outrageous cost estimates and then, when and if those costs are met, they often produce ridiculous documents,” said Heywood in his written testimony. “Those documents are often littered with improper and illegal redactions which obscure and hide information to which the public has an important need.”

Testifying from his own experience, Heywood used as an example the documents from an August 2010 FOIA request to Michigan State University regarding an alleged sexual assault by two MSU basketball players, comparing them to the same documents requested and obtained through the Ingham County Prosecutors Office.

The ICPO released the documents with only the sensitive information removed to protect the victim’s and the accused assailants’ identities and did so in a timely, cost relative manner. MSU on the other hand asked for $120 dollars to release the report and upon doing so redacted so much information that the police report was useless as reliable information regarding what happened.

“This incident with MSU is not an uncommon occurrence with the university or, sadly, with other public bodies in the state,” said Heywood.

Following the testimony Chairman McMillin explained why he brought the problems with FOIA to the attention of the committee.

“When you look at what Ingham County did and you look at MSU and the time it took, from the testimony I heard, it sounded like they were not being very open to something that is extremely reasonable,” said McMillin. “And in this case we had another alternative, we had the Ingham County Prosecutor, then you could show what was happening and see how egregious I think it appeared. Now we didn’t bring them forward so I didn’t hear the other side, but on its face you look at the redactions — 90% of the document versus 2% from the prosecutor — it really cries out for the potential for hiding something or just making it very burdensome and difficult. It seems like it’s probably occurring and this isn’t the only place. I’m sure its happening other places and that is why I wanted his testimony.”

McMillin said while he can’t guarantee a timetable for changes to the FOIA laws he did emphasize his willingness to pursue changes for the common good.

“I have a real interest in making sure people can be watchdogs of the government. I think it’s extremely important with the internet and entities like Mr. Heywood’s it could be more aggressive and more active and I just want to foster that and try to make sure that we do as much as we can to help those people who want to do that.”

Also sitting on the committee was Rep. Tim Bledsoe who wanted to make sure that before any changes to FOIA were made that the proper steps were taken to ensure that the situation like the one at MSU was not an isolated incident.

“The question is, is this something that is more appropriate for an administrative correction or do we actually need a legislative solution? Do we need to rewrite FOIA? Do we need to make some changes in the law? And that comes down to whether this is an isolated case or whether this is symptomatic of something happening more broadly out there and that is one of the things that we need to get to the bottom of in these committee hearings.”

Bledsoe said that if public documents are being withheld because of financial limitations of the requester, also known as economic stonewalling, then that situation needs to be addressed through changes in the law.

“I think it’s probably a natural reaction for public officials both elected and appointed to play things close to the vest and keep as much material confidential as possible. Obviously there are first amendment issues involving the media and its access to those materials as well as the public’s own right to know that information.”

Other journalists agreed that public bodies often try to withhold information that should be obtainable through a FOIA request.

“This is just a guess but I think it’s a pretty good one, most people air on the side of blocking out too much. Perhaps forgetting that just because something is not flattering or embarrassing, does not make it exempt from FOIA,” said Jam Sardar, News Director at WLNS TV in Lansing.

Sardar agreed with Heywood that the current FOIA law leaves too much room for public bodies to dance around the disclosure of documents, making the process of reporting much more difficult.

“I think some of our concerns match concerns we’ve heard from other places, that it takes too long, places block out too much information that should be public and that they try to charge exorbitant fees for information that is in the public interest and should be released for little or no costs because of its importance to the public. I’m glad to see that at least someone in the legislature is interested in this issue.”

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