GUEST EDITORIAL: Cost-related access challenges, solutions in 18 states

Michigan is one of 18 states making changes to Freedom of Information Act policies and the access to information.  The other states making changes are California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Washington.

In Michigan, Gov. Rick Snyder in January signed what media advocates say is the most significant update to the state’s Freedom of Information Act since it was written almost 40 years ago.

Beginning in July, public bodies will be limited to charging no more than 10 cents a page for copying a public record. Governments can continue charging labor costs to retrieve documents, but the costs will have to be estimated in 15-minute increments and be reduced each day a response is delayed. Public bodies also will have to provide an itemized explanation of fees and will face higher fines for refusing or delaying the disclosure of requested information.

The bill’s Republican sponsor, now-Sen. Mike Shirkey, said there have been more “constructive denials” of FOIA requests, in which exorbitant fees prove to be an outright denial.

“If the fees get excessively high … we need to make sure they are truly warranted and not expensive just for the sake of being expensive,” he said.

Further, those who request records can sue if they believe they are being overcharged. If they prevail and get a fee reduction of at least 50 percent, a court can award them all or a portion of attorneys’ fees and costs. If the public body is found to have acted “arbitrarily and capriciously” in imposing the fees, a judge must fine it $500 payable to the state and can issue an additional fine of $500 payable to the requestor.

Beyond providing protections against excessive fees, the law also punishes agencies that resist releasing their documents. If a government body “willfully and intentionally” fails to comply with the state’s freedom of information law, a judge shall impose a fine of $2,500 to $7,500 payable to the state.

This column is part of a larger breakdown of FOIA changes in all 18 states published by the American Society of News Editors. Associated Press writers who contributed to the overall report, include Jeff Amy in Jackson, Mississippi; Curt Anderson in Miami; Brian Bakst in St. Paul, Minnesota; Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Oregon; David Collins in Hartford, Connecticut; David Eggert in Lansing, Michigan; Michael Felberbaum in Richmond, Virginia; Ryan J. Foley in Iowa City, Iowa; John D. Hannah in Topeka, Kansas; Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington; Judy Lin in Sacramento, California; Brady McCombs in Salt Lake City; Ken Ritter in Las Vegas; Erik Schelzig in Nashville, Tennessee; Lauryn Schroeder in Indianapolis; Meredith Somers in Annapolis, Maryland; Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio; Kristen Wyatt in Denver.

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