June 05, 2013 - Local residents fear the First Amendment is under fire – Clarkston City Manager Carol Eberhardt wants to change the way the city charges for Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.
"Will I and everyone else now be charged to know what our city government is doing," asked Clarkston resident Cory Johnston. "Or is this simply an effort to hinder the public's right to know?"
Independence Township resident Michael Powell said he has made several requests to the township over the past 29 years and has never been charged a fee. Powell recently sent a FOIA request to the city and was outraged over Eberhardt's response informing him that there could be a fee and a deposit.
Eberhardt said she told Powell of the fee because it was not clear how extensive of a search his request would be.
The city does not get many FOIA requests, but she wants to make sure a guideline is in place if extraordinary requests are made. She suggested the change to protect the time of city workers and taxpayer dollars, she said.
During the May 28 city council meeting, Eberhardt recommended including a schedule of fees for large public-information requests to the FOIA form, as well as a 50 percent deposit if costs are estimated to be more than $50.
Under Michigan law, the city can charge for staff time and copying costs. Presently, the city can charge $13.90 an hour for research time, the wage of the lowest paid staff member, as well as 50 cents per copy.
Eberhardt said the 50 cent fee per page is a standard fee charged by many municipalities to help pay for costs like ink and paper.
Independence Township's FOIA request form says if the total estimated cost of a project exceeds $50, a deposit equal to half of the total can be required. The township charges 32 cents per page for copies with the option to charge a fee for staff time.
Newly sworn-in City Councilman Richard Bisio said there should be a reasonable balance between making information easily available while not overburdening city hall staff. Bisio also believes 50 cents per copy is too high, citing FOIA allows for only the actual cost of duplication.
The FOIA law requires government to disclose and provide documents created by public entities. Requests must be made in writing and provided to the FOIA coordinator. In addition, a fee to copy the document may apply. Public bodies can also charge to search for documents.
The law does not require agencies to do research or answer written questions. But if city workers do the work, they have a legal right to charge for hourly wages and print costs, as well as require a deposit.
If the information seeker does not want to pay fees or the deposit, they can come in and search records themselves free of charge, although a fee to make copies still applies, Eberhardt said.
"We invite anyone to come in and look through any documents anytime during business hours. I am always happy to accommodate requests," she said. "We have a 100 percent open door policy."
Anyone can also request a fee waiver if the information is in public interest or contributes to public understanding.
Eberhardt said all agendas, meeting minutes and audio recordings are online for anyone to review.
She added Johnston receives the same packet of information city council receives each meeting and he is never charged. Johnston was recently sent 109 pages of information electronically, and was not charged.
Johnston said under the new change, the 109 pages of information he had received could cost $54.50 plus labor to send to a printer or by e-mail even though it would only take 30 seconds to e-mail.
Eberhardt said information is sent to Johnston before each council meeting.
"We have never charged him for anything," said Eberhardt.
No motion to amend the form was made during the May 28 council meeting, and the issue was tabled until the next meeting on June 10.