Balancing FOIA costs with accessibilty

At both the federal and the state and local levels, the government is facing a tricky balancing act as it seeks to meet increasing demand for public information requests with diminishing resources. On the one hand are rising costs of responding to FOIA requests (due to the increased volume and complexity of incoming requests) coupled with shrinking budgets; on the other hand is the democratic necessity of transparency coupled with active requesters seeking the public information which they have a right to access. Ensuring that information is easily accessible includes keeping it affordable, but more and more, requesters find themselves stymied by the price tag associated with requests.

To solve this problem, the state of Michigan is attempting to overhaul its state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) with a bill that would limit the amount that government organizations could charge for fulfilling a FOIA request. House Bill 4001, introduced by State Representative Mike Shirkey, would specifically:

  • Limit the costs of copying to 10 cents per page.
  • require that they permit and not charge a fee for a FOIA requestor’s making copies with his or her own equipment during an on-site records inspection authorized by this law.
  • reduce the amount charged by a government entity for FOIA-related administrative and copying costs by 20 percent for each day its response exceeds the five-day statutory deadline.
  • increase the punitive awards to a person who successfully challenges an improper FOIA denial from $500 to $5,000, plus actual or compensatory damages.

However, even these measures don’t go far enough in the eyes of transparency advocates, especially in regards to information that ought to be easily available to the public electronically. For example, in response to a request for the salaries of state university professors, Wayne State wanted $112 to provide the information, whereas the University of Michigan provides that information free on its website. “That is a lot of money for information that should exist with the touch of a button,” Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association, said of the Wayne State FOIA fees.

Michigan has faced issues with the cost of FOIA requests in the past. In 2009, the Michigan State Police charged the Mackinac Center for Public Policy $6.8 million for FOIA’d documents related to the Homeland Security grant spending, an obviously exorbitant amount for what ought to be public information. In Oakland Township, resident Marc Edwards recently found himself faced with a $2,500 bill for two FOIA requests related to township official emails.

However, opponents of Shirkey’s bill argue that FOIA is a burden to agencies who have little resources to spend on responding to requests. As FOIA departments are often unfunded, without charging sufficient fees to requesters many agencies do not have the resources to respond to FOIA requests within the 20 day deadline.

How do you think that government organizations can balance the need to cover costs for FOIA requests while keeping public information affordable and accessible to requesters?