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Orion happy with new FOIA changes

October 03, 2012 - Public bodies in Lake Orion typically won't have any problems providing residents with low-cost access to public documents and welcome proposed changes to Michigan's Freedom of Information Act.

A bill to amend the state's FOIA has been brought before the Michigan House of Representatives.

HB 5879, introduced by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, seeks to address the manner in which a public body process and charges for FOIA requests.

Penny Shults, Orion Twp. Clerk thinks the proposed FOIA cap is a good idea. "Anytime you have a standardized fee for people, in any municipality, people know what to expect."

Her office charges 10 cents to copy one-sided documents, and 15 cents for two-sided documents. There is no additional charge to fax.

Some requests do run a bit more, she indicated. Appraisal record cards cost $3.00, but that includes the appraisal itself in addition to the copies.

"It's a reasonable fee if you consider all the things you're getting with that," Shults said. Fire reports and maps also cost $3.00.

Fielding FOIA requests adds no additional burden on her staff, she assured.

"A lot of our information was scanned when Jill Bastien (the previous Township clerk) was in office, and it's just keeping that database current."

It also helps that Orion Twp has a full time record coordinator in Julia Steimel.

At the same time, Shults sympathizes with offices that find difficulty with FOIA requests. Though Orion has digitized the information and thus enabled easy retrieval, some municipalities may not have that luxury or might only have part-time employees to process requests.

Extra legwork might be required if the documents are housed in a separate department, such as the permit applications or building plans held by the Building department.

"The Clerk's office is the custodian of all Township documents, but that doesn't necessarily mean that we have those documents in the Clerk's office," she said.

In order to ensure a complete report is given to the citizen initiating the FOIA request, "you have to enlist the services of other departments and that's really where the time comes in," she said.

In a twelve-month period, the Lake Orion School District fields approximately 20-25 FOIA requests, most of which can be completed in about 15 minutes.

The first step is to provide the citizen with an approximation of the time and cost to be incurred. Once the individual agrees to the search fees, then the information is collated.

Julia Olko, who manages all FOIA requests for Lake Orion Schools, said her office charges 10 cents a page for duplication if the requesting party wishes to take the resources home. Those charges are waived if the person opts to view the files at the district offices instead.

As for the changes proposed in Rep. Shirkey's bill, Olko has no problem except for extreme cases without price caps. For instance, last year a person requested a search for a particular keyword located across multiple years of email correspondence.

"It wasn't something that we could easy pull, so we (needed) one of our technology personnel to go through all of our staff member's email accounts and do a manual search. It was thousands of dollars of labor."

The time period to be searched would also have included future references to this keyword, so the project would have required a full-time employee for this single FOIA request. For this reason, the proposed revision might be worrisome, she admitted.

"If there is a cap on that and we're expected to do that work for free, that's very concerning to me."

Otherwise, Olko sees no difficulty following Rep Shirkey's proposed revision to the FOIA legislation.

"That is our job to report back what we do, because we are a government body," Olko said.

Clerk Shults echoed Olko's sentiment. "The bottom line is this is our job. If it makes it easier for people to get that information, by all means, let's do it."

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