Nothing personal behind FOIA requests
A recent Freedom of Information Act request for Kalkaska County officials’ emails, text messages, letters and memorandums about the point-of-sale septic inspections debate rang in at $396.90 for 95 pages.
We appealed the $4 per page cost Dec. 18, which was denied, with a colorful discussion.
Commissioners hoped the 5-0 vote to deny (with two absent) would send a message.
We got the message: that commissioners’ feel that FOIA requests are a personal affront.
Commissioners bandied about charging us more on principle, or about whether a FOIA was neutral.
“It doesn’t seem neutral when it’s a FOIA. Neutral is when you come here and listen at what the table’s got to say,” Commissioner Craig Crambell said.
“It just feels like an accusation to me,” he later said.
We know he’s not the only public official to feel this way about FOIA.
But FOIA isn’t about feelings. It’s not about fear and vindictiveness. It isn’t judgmental. It isn’t critical.
It just is.
It’s the record of public discussions on public business, beyond what is said in public meetings. It exonerates as well as indicts. And it’s the law.
We feel strongly about FOIA, no doubt. We like to get on our soapbox and lather up. But the fact is that FOIAs themselves are dispassionate. There’s just what happened.
In this situation, the FOIA fact-checked public accusations that commissioners only listened to “real estate cronies” in their decision to back off point-of-sale septic inspections.
We paid the bill — in partnership with Interlochen Public Radio — and published everything we found.
But we wondered what others would do when faced with that $400 bill. Would they appeal? Would they pay it and learn, or forgo the expense and continue holding onto their preconceptions?
The taxpaying public has already paid for these documents. They belong to them. Public servants should willingly and readily make them available.
FOIA is not personal, and the more we train our public officials to objectively view — encourage? — accountability, the better chance we’ll have of feeling good about government.