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House Oversight advances FOIA bills

Government records revealed under the Freedom of Information Act.
Lindsey Smith
Michigan Radio
Freedom of Information Act requests can often take weeks or months to fulfill.

Bills that would add more transparency requirements for state agencies and local governments made it out of the Michigan House Oversight Committee Thursday.

The package would require state agencies and local governments to acknowledge receipt of a Freedom of Information Act request within a couple of business days.

The legislation also works to prevent officials from citing new reasons for denying a request in court. It would create fines for when a named reason isn’t also included in the written denial.

State Rep. David LaGrand (D-Grand Rapids) said the package is “incredibly important.”

“We are at a perilous moment for our country and I think everything we can do to increase government transparency, to increase modeling trustworthy behavior to the voters is absolutely imperative,” LaGrand said.

The legislation received wide support within the House Oversight Committee Thursday. But lawmakers had some hesitations their work wasn’t done.

Rep. Jeff Yaroch (R-Richmond) said he supports transparency in local government.

“My frustration is that, again, this is another standard placed on local governments that we don’t put on ourselves,” Yaroch said. Michigan’s FOIA doesn’t apply to individual lawmakers.

During Thursday’s meeting, Jennifer Rigterink, of the Michigan Municipal League, pointed out many local FOIA coordinators have multiple duties.

“Being the FOIA coordinator is not their main job so dropping everything to respond to a FOIA request when it is brought in is not realistic in most places,” Rigterink said.

Under the proposed package, officials would have to acknowledge a requested record’s existence, describe it, and explain why access to it was denied.

Deena Bosworth is with the Michigan Association of Counties. She said that’s the most concerning part of the package for her.

“Briefly describing, you know, an appraisal? Not so bad. Briefly describing that there’s a record of a mental health investigation or briefly describing a rape kit? Those are problematic things and so I think we need to be a little bit more careful,” Bosworth said.

Package supporters said they’ve worked to address worries local government groups had about the legislation without weakening it.

“It is our intention to try to make FOIA as easily accessible to everyday Michiganders so that way government is open and transparent. That is a good thing,” committee chair Steve Johnson (R-Wayland Twp) said.

The legislation now heads to the full House of Representatives for consideration.

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