Municipalities prep for FOIA changes

State law streamlines public information requests

ManisteeCountyLogoMANISTEE — Public entities in Manistee County are working to amend Freedom of Information Act policies that are aimed to streamline the process throughout the state, and make it less expensive for those who seek public records.

The Manistee County Board of Commissioners, Manistee County Road Commission and Manistee City Council, among others, passed resolutions for new policies — in accordance with Michigan Public Act 563 of 2014 — this month.

“A lot of people don’t like this new law,” said Tom Kaminski, Manistee County controller and administrator, during a recent county board meeting. “I, personally, kind of like it because it sets in stone exactly what we can charge for, what we can’t charge for (and) how we do things. In the past, we used to say, ‘We’re providing this through email, how do we charge per page?’ Well, the statute tells us now exactly how.”

By July 1, public agencies are required to make the changes to align with the law that was signed by Gov. Rick Snyder on Dec. 31, 2014. If a policy is not in place, that entity is not allowed to charge for FOIA requests.

“We really don’t have a choice in this matter; we have to do it,” said Mark Bergstrom, Manistee County commissioner.

If a requested document is provided on paper, it is required to be done so in the most economical method, including double-sided printing, according to the act. No more than 10 cents per page can be charged.

If a document is provided on physical media or through electronic mail, the requester can only be charged for the cost of the media, such as a disk.

“It’s really designed to make all FOIAs free,” Kaminski said.

It would be difficult to make them all free because sometimes people continually make requests that are “burdensome,” he said. However, most people are looking for basic information that is easily provided.

“The more stuff we have on our website, the easier it is,” Kaminski said. “If someone wants a copy of the budget, we don’t have to send it to them, all we have to do is send them a letter saying it’s on our website, go get it.”

There are also costs for labor, which is to be charged in 15-minute increments, always rounding down. The rate must be consistent with the pay of the lowest available employee in the office responding to the request.

One of the only things public entities have any control over is labor charges, Kaminski said. Boards have the power to give a certain amount of labor time for free before charges begin.

The county’s policy gives the first 30 minutes of labor free.

“I like that because it saves us time (on billing),” Kaminski said. “If someone sends me a FOIA request, and I can reach in the file cabinet and grab the document, we won’t charge a penny for that (labor).”

The county’s policy is not posted on its website yet.

“The only thing we’re waiting on to complete those policies is we’re changing the email address that FOIA requests should go to,” said Lisa Sagala, Manistee County personnel officer.

Requests currently are sent directly to Kaminski who has been the FOIA coordinator for 28 years. A separate FOIA coordinator email will send copies to Kaminski and someone else in the administration office to ensure that requests are responded to within five days.

“Tom has an obligation to respond to all those requests within five days,” Sagala said. “If he’s on vacation, someone would have to check his email every day to see if a FOIA came through. It doesn’t matter where he is, he still has only five days to respond.”

The civil fine imposed on municipalities for FOIA violations is increased to between $2,500-$7,500, depending on the entity’s budget and whether there are previous infractions.

The next meeting of the Manistee County Board of Commissioners is at 9 a.m. on July 21 at the Manistee County Courthouse, located at 415 Maple St. in Manistee.

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Posted by Justine McGuire

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