Murkiness in Houghton County
The Inside Scoop
It’s not unusual for a FOIA request to get denied in part or full. I’ve received heavily redacted documents from the FBI, exemptions from overlapping laws from FERC, data dumps meant to overwhelm me from other agencies, and I found ways to work with or around all of it.
This is to say that a variety of frustration surrounding FOIA requests is nothing new to me.
What is dismaying is that local, elected representatives can look at a clearly-cited violation of FOIA law and still vote unanimously to support their FOIA coordinator.
Glossing over any of the individual documents I have requested—I’ll get to those later—the FOIA coordinator is overtly and repeatedly violating two statutes in Section 5 of the Michigan Freedom of Information Act. Please check my sources and judge for yourself.
The first is in Subsection (5)(a), which states the notice of denial must contain “An explanation of the basis under this act or other statute for the determination that the public record, or portion of that public record, is exempt from disclosure if that is the reason for denying all or a portion of the request.”
The county FOIA coordinator has not cited any statutes whatsoever in denying my FOIA requests.
In my requests for the bills that are approved at regular meetings (often totaling over $1 million monthly), I have been referred to the Houghton County Office where I might inspect them in person, however, Section 5, Subsection (10) of the MFOIA, clearly states “A person making a request under subsection (1) may stipulate that the public body’s response under subsection (2) be electronically mailed, delivered by facsimile, or delivered by first-class mail. This subsection does not apply if the public body lacks the technological capability to provide an electronically mailed response.”
Considering my requests were received and denied by email, the county has the technological capability, so their refusal to provide a copy electronically clearly flies in the face of the law. My suspicion is that not giving me an electronic copy is an effort to keep me from sharing them with the public.
The fact that the board of commissioners can look at these obvious violations and ignore them is chilling. Having chosen their new administrator, they now give her license to run roughshod over the law, poking holes where she pleases. If they can overlook these state laws, what other laws can they simply overlook in their own favor?
With giant sums of opioid settlement and COVID-19 relief money rushing into county coffers, financial transparency is more important than ever. We’ve seen what other counties have tried. However, the Houghton County administration, and board, seem to be doing everything they can—including overtly breaking the law—to keep those financial statements, and other documents, hidden.
I will continue to write more on this topic in the coming weeks, addressing individual documents that I’m trying to secure. I have filed renewed FOIA requests for several documents, all of which have already been summarily denied without legal justification. Some likely validly, but without any cited statutes it is still a violation of the law, and the secrecy is counter to a democracy, republic, or any kind of self-government.
I’ll be discussing the feasibility of taking the county to court with a lawyer. If the board of commissioners is not going to acknowledge the Freedom of Information Act, the court of law (or the court of public opinion in November) is my only option to secure basic transparency for the public.