Source: Sherman Publications

Questions remain in FOIA case

by Andrea Beaudoin

March 12, 2014

Cory Johnston is fighting back after City Manager Carol Eberhardt alleged he was stalking her and said she feared for her safety.

Johnston hired an attorney after Eberhardt made comments he felt hurts his professional career and reputation.

Johnston’s attorney Fred Butters said he submitted a Freedom of Information Act request around Feb. 21 and expected it should have been delivered to the city a few days later. In the request, Butters asked for any information that backs up Eberhardt’s claims Johnston was stalking.

“I suspect when the Watergate scandal was happening, Richard Nixon thought he was being harassed too,” said Butters.

The attorney said the time to respond to the FOIA has passed, and he will send the next request in several ways including through electronic communication and via certified letter.

In addition to the FOIA request, Butters also sent a letter addressed to Eberhardt requesting a public apology and retraction for statements she made to The Clarkston News.

Last week, when asked about the FOIA request, Eberhardt shrugged her shoulders and said she was unaware of the request. When asked about the public apology, she said she was waiting on direction from the city council.

Butters suspects Eberhardt does not have information to back up claims that Johnston committed a crime by stalking her. “I also can’t understand why the city manager needs direction from the city council to issue a public apology,” he said.

Cold encounters continue

Eberhardt’s response to a clearly written FOIA request submitted by The Clarkston News last week: “Please clarify,” adding the paper would receeive the information in five business days.

Johnston said he, too, has encountered troubles in the past when submitting FOIA requests to the city. In December 2013, Johnston submitted a FOIA request regarding information relating to the repair of a bridge. He received a response to the first request within three days.

A second FOIA, requesting any additional information on the bridge, was submitted Jan. 13. Johnston received a response Jan. 23—more than the five days required by law—that simply stated there was no more information.

The city has also changed its FOIA policy since Eberhardt took the city manager job, after she recommended the city change its FOIA policy in May 2013.

Johnston, as well as Independence Township resident Michael Powell, had concerns over the change.

Powell said he had made several requests in his 29 years to Independence Township, and had never been charged a fee. In May, Powell submitted a FOIA request to the city and was outraged over Eberhardt’s response informing him of a fee and deposit.

Eberhardt said she informed Powell of the fee because she was unsure how extensive his request would be. She also said she wanted to make sure there was a clear procedure in place for FOIA requests in the event extraordinary requests are made.

Under Michigan law, the city is allowed to charge staff time and copying costs, and up to 50 cents per copy. If the requestor does not wish to pay the fees, they can visit the office and perform the search themselves.

Other municipalities charge for requests too.

Independence Township FOIA policy is, if the total estimated cost of a project exceeds $50, a deposit equal to half the project can be required. Township employees can also charge to copy documents.