The Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is a law which gives you the right to access information at a federal level. Often considered a way of “keeping the government honest”, this law provides that as an American, you have the right to request information relating to defense, justice, the environment, security and other matters. In the U.S., each state also offers its own Freedom of Information Act as well.
In Michigan, the Michigan Freedom of Information Act was first established in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate Scandal. Watergate had an extreme effect on the majority of Americans. In fact, Watergate directly or indirectly brought about the establishment of the Freedom of Information Act and other laws which are meant to create transparency in the government and increase accountability.
Like the Federal FOIA, the Michigan FOIA provides that citizens of the State of Michigan have the right to see and review the information related to their state government. The act, which gives us this access, also established a host of information relating to it including fees related to them, exemptions and distribution. While the act has remained fairly unchanged since its creation almost 40 years ago, it recently underwent some massive changes. Introduced as House Bill 4001 (2013), PA 563 will go into effect in July of 2015 and is designed to make access to these state records simpler and more inexpensive. The changes according to these new regulations include not just how much government facilities will be allowed to charge for these records, but also how it provides information, deposit requirements and fines associated with delays of these requests as well.
So why the changes?
Some believe that for years, the lack of control over how much government institutions could charge and the relatively small fines which were levied on those who delay these requests, led to abuse of the Michigan FOIA. These changes which go into effect in just a few months are meant not only to increase the amount of transparency in the government, but also reduce over charging, keep government entities accountable and allow requesters the opportunity to contest fees which they consider are too high with regard to public records.
Some of the new rules set within Public Act 563 of 2014 include:
- Allowing FOIA requestors to require that the public body provide records on non-paper physical media, by e-mail, or otherwise electronically provided, so long as the public body has the technological capability necessary to provide records on the particular media stipulated by the requestor
- Prohibiting a public body from charging more than $0.10/sheet for paper copies of public records which exclude labor costs
- Allowing a public body to inform a FOIA requestor that requested information is available on the public body’s website, in lieu of providing the public records, so long as the records were available on the website at the time of the request.
- Requiring a court to impose an additional civil fine of $2,500 to $7,500 if it finds the public body has willfully and intentionally failed to comply with the act or otherwise acted in bad faith
Just a few of the many changes expected, you can read the entire House Bill which is now law here.