FOIA Turns 50. Here is Why That Matters.
(Crystal A. Proxmire, July 4, 2016)
Washington DC – The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is the law that requires the Federal Government to operate with transparency and to disclose information that is requested by the public (including the media). There are exemptions to what information can be released, and it certainly far from perfect. But this law makes clear that the public has a right to know what its government is up to. And today is this historic act’s 50th birthday.
Although the Oakland County 115 is only 7 years old, and covers communities that are already quite transparent, we have had to rely Michigan’s FOIA law as well as the Nation’s on several occasions. As journalism’s role is to be the “fifth estate” and the “watchdog of the public,” it is important to the oc115 that FOIA law be understood, appreciated, protected, and –most important – used.
HOW HAS THE OC115 USED FOIA?
Most recently the oc115 obtained three years’ worth of police reports for the Motorama Motel, a business at the corner of 8 Mile and Woodward Avenue in Ferndale that has a reputation for crime, particularly narcotics and prostitution. The reputation was simply that, a reputation, until the reports were actually gathered and the public was given a data-driven look at the police activity at the property.
With those reports being published, the public and city officials were able to understand the scope of the problems, and the city denied the business license of the motel, as well as that of a neighboring hotel with similar issues. Without access to those reports, neighbors who live in the area – including those who themselves have been victims of the crime that spills into their neighborhoods, might not know the scope or nature of the reported criminal activity.
Our two most impactful investigative reports – both of which won Society of Professional Journalism Awards – required the use of FOIA.
In 2012 the oc115, then called The Ferndale 115, was investigating the side consulting work of the Ferndale Schools Superintendent. Gary Meier was later fired for violating his contract and using public school resources – including countless hours of staff time – to help start charter schools that were in direct competition with the district. At the time our task was to use FOIA to obtain emails that might show the scope of Meier’s side consulting and how much resources were being siphoned away from the taxpayers and public school students for his own gain. The oc115 even held a FOIA fundraiser to cover the costs. In 2014 it was a public document that provided the proof of Meier’s side work, minutes from a charter school meeting that listed him as attending and the name of the new company he had started after telling the school board that he had ceased doing consulting work.
And in 2015 we used FOIA at a local level and at a Federal level to obtain documents related to the gross mismanagement of the Ferndale Housing Commission. The oc115 obtained documents from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, including letters to the agency and the results of a major investigation. The Director of the Ferndale Housing Commission Deborah Wilson had developed a drug addiction and was using her position of power to illegally enter the homes of low income, disabled and senior citizen residents to steal their prescription medications and replace them with over the counter pills. To cover up her activities, she and fellow administrators kept residents from speaking at public meetings, broke up resident groups and reportedly began writing up and evicting residents who questioned their rights. They also closed down common areas of the buildings and sent residents warnings about unauthorized meetings. When Wilson was finally arrested, the Commissioners who were supposed to be overseeing the operations of the FHC doubled down on their support of Wilson, showing open disdain for residents, disputing media requests, and even giving the former Director a $130,000 severance package even after being convicted of breaking and entering and drug possession. In this case, both the Open Meetings Act and the FOIA helped expose the wrong doings in the agency. And as information became public, caring people stepped up to help, including elected officials, city administration, activists, and people at HUD. New board members replaced the old ones, and a new Director is now in the process of facilitating healing in the organization.
FOIA was also helpful in 2014-2015 when Justin Schalk, who was known in Berkley, Hazel Park and Ferndale for his involvement in wresting programs when he lived in the area, was fatally shot in a small community outside of Las Angeles. The local media was not covering the case, so the oc115 had to get information from afar. Thankfully the prosecuting team in San Bernardino County was helpful in walking us through California FOIA law to get the documents we needed to make sure that the story of this lost life was told.
Along the way there have also been many cases where the police have voluntarily released dashcam videos of police interactions with subjects and the general public. Though no FOIA requests were filed for those, it is because local law enforcement agencies understand and appreciate the public’s right to know that such video is often shared either upon request, or is offered to the media when incidents happened.
STATEWIDE FOIA ISSUES
Overall the oc115 has found our local governmental bodies to be open and helpful when we have made requests for information. However, statewide there are some issues. A 2015 nationwide study by the Center for Public Transparency ranked Michigan last in terms of open governance, with a grade of “F.” In 2012 Michigan also had an “F” but was ranked 44th. Some of the failures included lack of laws requiring data be published online, exemptions to FOIA provisions for the Governor’s office and the State Legislature, the ability for major donors or corporations to influence elections through undisclosed donations and issue advertising, and a lack of requirements for auditing of lobbying and disclosure records.
A bipartisan bill was introduced by State Rep Jeremy Moss (D, Southfield) on March 16 that would require the Governor’s Office and the State Legislature to be subject to FOIA. Michigan is one of only two states that allows such exemption for those branches of government.
The introduction was done during Sunshine Week, a time that media and legislators alike often take to reflect on open governance and to work towards improving this essential part of democracy.
“People expect and deserve an open, transparent government. When the task of legislating plays out behind closed doors, our constituents begin to distrust us and lose faith in the political process,” Moss said in a press release about the bill. “We are elected to serve the people, and the only way they can know whether we are serving them honestly and fairly is if we do our jobs in the light of day.”
Scandals such as the Flint water crisis and an affair between two State Reps were prominent examples where the media and the public were kept in the dark.
This bill has bipartisan support and co-sponsors from both the Republican and Democratic parties. The sponsors of the bill are: Jeremy Moss – (primary)Ed McBroom, Lee Chatfield, John Kivela, Michael Webber, Jim Runestad, Julie Plawecki, Scott Dianda, Marilyn Lane, Jon Hoadley, Kristy Pagan, Jeff Irwin, Stephanie Chang, Pat Somerville, Tom Barrett, Bill LaVoy, Vanessa Guerra, George Darany, Holly Hughes, Winnie Brinks, Martin Howrylak, David LaGrand, Gary Glenn, Laura Cox, Lisa Lyons, Sarah Roberts, Marcia Hovey-Wright, Robert Wittenberg, Gretchen Driskell, Tim Greimel, Amanda Price, Jim Townsend, Jim Tedder, Thomas Hooker, Gary Howell, Phil Phelps, and Peter Lucido.
LOCAL OPEN GOVERNANCE ISSUES
There are still challenges locally. Often FOIA fees are used as a way to stall the process of getting information. The oc115 saw this in both of our major investigative pieces. Government agencies do have the ability to waive FOIA fees if they deem it is in the public interest to release the information. In almost every situation where agencies used fees and stall tactics, there was a deceptive reason for it. Publications like the oc115 provide a service to the public, and it is in the interest of the public and the agencies that information be shared with the press with as few barriers as possible.
The Oakland County Court system is one area where this is particularly challenging. Access to court documents is done online, at a cost of $1 per page even for electronic copies. The database exists for the courts regardless of FOIA requests, and no extra human effort is needed to assist the public in obtaining these records. This cost is extremely prohibitive. For example, recently to access documents for a simple property dispute would have cost the oc115 over $700, and we were unable to do the story because of this. The oc115 would invite any publication with the resources to do so to investigate why this cost is so high and to fight to make these records accessible to the public and to the press.
FOIA does not often make the headlines. But it is often behind them, and on the side of the reporters and publishers who write them. Even in our small local publication, the protection of the right to access information has proven essential to our work, and to keeping the American ideal of democracy alive.
Happy birthday FOIA.
For more information on FOIA, including data on FOIA requests made of the Federal government, see https://www.foia.gov/.
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FOIA Turns 50. Here is Why That Matters.