New FOIA legislation passed last December in Michigan will take effect next month on July 1, 2015 (PA 563 of 2014). At this point, municipalities should begin finalizing their preparations for these significant changes, which relate to how they charge for responses to Freedom of Information (FOIA) requests now.
While the changes are meant to shed some sunlight on government and increase transparency, the FOIA amendments place many requirements on public bodies.
The changes require local governments to establish specific written procedures and guidelines for FOIA requests, including a separate written summary informing the public on how to submit FOIA requests, how to understand the responses to FOIA requests, deposit requirements, fee calculations, and avenues for challenging and appealing a potential denial of a request.
It is important to note that these written guidelines must be in place in order for a public body to collect deposits and charge fees allowable under FOIA.
Most municipalities now have websites, and it is required to post the procedures, guidelines, and written summary on the website. In addition, it is required to provide free copies of the procedures, guidelines, and written summary upon request, and to include a free copy, or a website link to the policies, in all FOIA responses.
The procedures and guidelines must include a standard form to detail the itemization of any fee the municipality estimates or charges under FOIA. The itemization must clearly list and explain each of the six fee components authorized under the new legislation. These six components include:
(1) the costs of labor to locate or examine the records, (2) to separate or delete nonexempt information, and (3) to make copies or transfer digital records; (4) the cost of computer discs or tapes, or other digital media, if public records were provided on non-paper physical media; (5) the cost of duplication or publication, if paper copies were provided; and (6) the cost of postage.
There are a bevy of other changes included in the amendments, including a 10-cent ceiling on charges for paper copies of public records. Municipalities may also provide public information on the website, and, instead of providing paper copies (unless requested) they can direct a FOIA requestor to that specific website link.
One of the more notable amendments relate to the significant increase in penalties for public bodies violating or failing to comply with the act. Fines that previously ranged from $500 to $2,500 have now increased to $1,000 to $7,500.
Luckily, some municipalities already have some of these new requirements in place. However, now is the time to translate those practices into written guidelines for the public, in addition to other house-keeping items to come into full compliance with the FOIA amendment by July 1.
This blog is meant only as a brief summary of what is a policy-wonk piece of legislation. Fausone Bohn, LLP attorneys work with several municipalities across southeast Michigan and western Wayne County. Please don’t hesitate to contact us for consultation.