Expand Access to Information
Updated January 22, 2013


The Freedom of Information Act of 1976 made certain state and local government information available to the public and provided procedures for getting it. Some areas of government, however, are excluded from any requirement to provide information. Specifically excluded are:

  • the governor and lieutenant governor, the executive office of the governor or lieutenant governor, or employees thereof
  • the entire judicial branch
  • legislators

The rationale for excluding these bodies is not apparent to me. There may be some information that should not be available to the public. However, the Act includes a long list of "public records exempt from disclosure", and sensitive information specific to the executive office, the legislature and the judiciary could be added to that list. But there is also a lot of information - such as names and salaries of employees - that should be available.

FOIA request control system. At the end of 2007, President Bush signed a bill to enhance the federal Freedom if Information Act. Among other improvements, it creates a system that allows the public to track FOIA requests. I will propose the creation of a centrally-controlled, state FOIA request system that allows registration and tracking of requests. FOIA request activities will be reported on the state's website so that the requestor and any other interested party can follow the request and, when practical, gain online access to the requested information. The system will also allow state officials to enforce compliance with the Act to save citizens the expense of taking legal action.

Trial transcripts. Most trials and court proceedings are open to the public. To provide even more public oversight of the courts, I would like to see trial transcripts posted on the Internet. I described my attempt to get a transcript of the Claude McCollum murder trial in a letter to the Lansing State Journal. Posting trial transcripts on the court's website would be easy and cheap and, I would think, very useful to attorneys.

Public employee salaries. The Internet is a wonderful tool for providing information, and I'd like to see public bodies routinely post information of interest on their websites. It might save them some of the expense of responding to individual Freedom of Information requests. In June 2007, the Lansing State Journal caused an uproar when it published on its website the salaries of all 53,000-plus non-exempt state classified employees. The State itself should have been doing so all along. At least two states already do so. I will propose legislation that requires the State to publish the salaries not only of state employees, but employees of all public entities in Michigan – cities, counties, schools, utilities, and so on. They should all be on the State’s website for easy access. It wouldn’t be that difficult. The State already collects wage data for school employees for the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System. And the Municipal Employees' Retirement System collects wage data for over 670 units of local government, including cities, counties, hospitals, libraries, medical care facilities, road commissions, townships and villages.

In addition to the salaries, total earnings for the last calendar year should be published for each public employee. Often an employee's actual earnings exceed his salary due to overtime, bonuses, etc. Also, the value of each fringe benefit should be given. The entire data base should be available for download so that anyone can do his own analysis.

In December 2012, the state legislature took away public access to a big piece of public employee compensation: the pension. Tucked inside Senate Bill 797, an otherwise innocuous refinement of public pension investment regulations, was this provision:

Except as otherwise provided in this subsection, information regarding the calculation of actual or estimated retirement benefits for members of the system is exempt from disclosure by the system or the political subdivision sponsoring the system pursuant to Section 13(1)(d) of the Freedom of Information Act, 1976 PA 442, MCI 15.243.

More on this here.

My FOIA experience. I have used the Freedom of Information Act a lot over the years. In 1979, when I was working in the City of Lansing's data processing department, I may have been the first to use it to get information from my own employer. I used it in the same way in the 1990's, when I was working for the state Department of Management and Budget. And after I retired from the Municipal Employees' Retirement System, I used the Act to get the "confidential" termination agreements of some former MERS employees. In that case, MERS denied my request and I had to take them to court. They finally turned over the agreements, reimbursed me for $6426 in attorney fees, and paid me $500 as a penalty (as required by the Act) for improperly denying my request.

My most recent FOIA request was to the state Office of Retirement Systems. They received it 11/2/2007. According to the Act, they have a maximum of 15 business days to either provide the information or deny the request. I didn't get the requested material until 1/9/08, a week after I sent them a warning letter. I used the material for the article Stop the $880 Million Pension Fund Give-away.