Transparency Is An Expensive Hassle, But Worth It
By Craig Manning | March 15, 2019
This week is national “Sunshine Week” -- an annual celebration of public information and the Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) – so The Ticker explores FOIA and transparency in the Grand Traverse region.
In 2015, Michigan ranked last in a nationwide study that looked at state laws for ethics and transparency. Part of the issue is that Michigan’s FOIA laws don’t apply to the state legislature or the governor’s office. In February, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed a directive aimed at speeding up FOIA processing and lowering costs. And on Tuesday, the House Government Operations Committee gave the greenlight for a package of 10 FOIA bills to go before the full House. Among other changes, the bills would extend FOIA in Michigan to include the governor.
Locally, the Grand Traverse County Sheriff’s Office receives 50-60 FOIA requests every week. Handling all those requests is a full-time job; Deborah Fountain is FOIA coordinator in the Sheriff’s Office and also handles most of the FOIA work for the Traverse City Police Department, which then reimburses the Sheriff’s Office for costs.
Attorneys, insurance companies, and the local media are big users of FOIA when it comes to the Sheriff’s Office – yet Fountain says 60 percent of the FOIA requests she handles actually come from the general public.
“They could be involved in that police report. They were a witness; they were a victim; they were a suspect. Or the incident may have happened down the street from their house and they’re curious what happened,” Sheriff Tom Bensley says. “We can’t ask them why they want this information. They just say ‘I want this report,’ and we comply.”
The good news is FOIA requests generated $13,000 last year for the Sheriff’s Office. Still, Bensley says, “it’s a money-losing proposition."
The Sheriff’s Office can’t charge for the actual time and costs of complying with requests. The department bills FOIA processing in 15-minute increments, with each 15-minute block breaking down to $8. For photocopies of documents, there is an added rate of 10 cents per page. But if Fountain works for two hours and 43 minutes on a request, she can’t round up; she can only bill for two and a half hours.
As a result, Bensley says the costs of processing FOIA requests each year outstrip revenues from those requests by about $50,000. And some of those taxpayer dollars are entirely wasted: “We average roughly 70 FOIA requests each year that we prepare and people don’t come and get,” Bensley adds.
For Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS), the challenge with FOIA is inconsistency. Where the Sheriff’s Office deals with enough requests to justify a full-time coordinator, FOIA requests with the school district are intermittent. The job of responding falls largely to PR Manager Christine Guitar and one other co-worker.
“The requests we get at times can be extraordinarily time-consuming,” Guitar says. “They can essentially take over all of our time, depending on how big the ask is. And it’s hard to prepare for, because we could go for two months without a request, and then have one that is really big.”
TCAPS FOIA requests have increased in recent years. There were 70 during the 2017-18 year – up from just 29 in 2014-15. So far in 2018-19, the district has already gotten 47 requests. Some come from the public or from local media, while a few even come from students writing for school papers, testing the waters of FOIA as an educational experience. The most common FOIA requests, though, come from outside Traverse City entirely. One big requester is American Transparency, a nonprofit organization that publishes government spending data online.
One of the reasons FOIA requests are so time-consuming for TCAPS is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects privacy for student educational records. Guitar says that “FERPA trumps FOIA,” in that the district typically needs to do heavy redacting to any files that might include student information. Other privacy laws factor in, too. If a staff member’s personnel file were to be FOIA-ed, TCAPS would need to notify that person about the request before complying.
Still, some district personnel aren’t 100 percent clear on what information can be accessed via FOIA. Particularly surprising is the fact that emails sent or received by TCAPS accounts are considered fair game.
“At one point a few years ago, the local newspaper FOIA-ed emails we got from staff about whether we made a good snow day call,” Guitar says. “It was really upsetting to staff to find out that that could happen, but we have no ability to deny that kind of request.”
Not that FOIA is a burden for all local public offices. According to Deputy City Clerk Katelyn Zeits, the City of Traverse City only received 93 FOIA requests last year, and only 22 so far in 2019. Zeits says most of these requests are straightforward and have to do with things like zoning actions, fire reports, and environmental things like chemical spills or underground storage tanks.