LANSING, MI — The first national “Sunshine Week: Your Right to Know” was launched in March 2005 and will be celebrated in 2010 from March 14-20. Sunshine Week’s intent is to raise awareness of the importance of open government to everyone in the community, not just journalists. The week focuses on problems of steadily-eroding access to national, state and local government, such as the inability to get information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
The Knight FOI has announced a new $2 million dollar, 3-year grant to the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) to support state open government groups.
According to NFOIC, the need for such a fund arose from the realization that the economic crisis and the evolution of the news media has resulted in declining levels of FOI advocacy. FOI coalitions themselves were threatened by the shrinking media economy.
Even if the governmental agency is trying to protect itself from citizens who they believe are disruptive to daily business, allegiance must always be to openness, transparency and state law.
According to www.rocketlawyer.com, FOIA is to encourage public access to government information and to enable individual citizens to obtain such information without administrative burdens. This law was passed in an effort to overcome restrictive agency interpretations of government regulations, which were being used to withhold information from the public. Disclosure of federal (state and local) agency activities tends to hold government officials accountable and promotes an informed citizenry to serve as a check against corruption. These goals are vital to the functioning of a democratic society. However, FOIA is NOT intended as a means for private individuals to find out what types of facts or opinions foreign, state, or local law enforcement agencies have collected about private parties.
Chetly Zarko, a former investigative writer turned political consultant, who owns Zarko Research & Consulting, said many people are aware of their rights to access government information or attend meetings, but either are in a difficult political position to sign their name to a request or show up. And government and the legal process don’t make it easy.
Zarko is the founder of www.mitransparency.com, which is a site intended to be a community tool for all Michiganders and others to use in documenting and cataloguing transparency issues. The website uses the wiki concept which provides an opportune tool for creating a site that contains tracking citizen journalism, open records activity, and elections on all levels of government.
Zarko said that it is a work in progress and ultimately it will be the responsibility of individual citizens to build on the movement for more transparency in government and better laws.
FOIA requests are relatively simple to prepare and easy to file. These requests usually require charges for record searches and document copying. For FOIA provisions specifically for the city of Lansing log on to www.lansingmi.gov and search “foia”.
However, sometimes it is difficult to obtain information. John Pollard, who is a frequent vocal citizen at Lansing City Council states that it is better to put a request for information in writing. He also states that even though the request is in writing that sometimes your questions are not answered in detail. He said he submitted a FOIA and requested a detailed accounting and all receipts for all expenses incurred by Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero and his administrative staff for the three trips (or more) made to Washington D.C. to lobby for GM and the economic stimulus packages for Lansing. He stated that what he received was not detailed enough.
Pollard stated that there is some frustration when it comes to finding out information but that he uses FOIA so that he can provide facts and figures to the public that they would not otherwise have. Sometimes his colorful and contentious behavior irks some City Council members, however, he believes that it is his right to challenge the existing state of affairs.
One of the most important cases regarding FOIA was the text message scandal of former Detroit Mayor, Kwame Kilpatrick. The Gannett-owned Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News fought for information regarding an $8.4 million settlement between the then mayor’s former bodyguards and the city. In 2008, the court ruled part of the information (the text messages) the newspaper wanted was public information. Recently Wayne County Circuit Jude Robert Colombo, Jr. ruled that the City of Detroit will have to pay for FOIA violations.
The National Freedom of Information Coalition (www.nfoic.org) offers sample FOIA letters and other information regarding protecting the public’s right to oversee its government. There is information on their website to assist in the process of filing, as well as, a database for statewide transparency and open government organizations.
Editor’s Note: In 2010, The New Citizens Press will be posting national, state and local FOIA stories, links and information on our Facebook page in honor of Sunshine Week. We would also like to know what you think about FOIA and how it impacts your life. Show us your FOIA requests.
We will keep you posted regarding our FOIA journey and what happens. TNCP requested its first FOIA on February 9, 2010. We received the package on February 24, 2010 and the envelope was postmarked February 18, 2010. We will provide you with more information in the next edition. Log on to www.tncp.net for more information.