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Friday, December 19, 2014, 9:30 am
Alice Dreger

This week, our Managing Editor suggested that ELi investigate “whether it's possible to develop and, in fact, die from Seasonal Affective Disorder in the space of two weeks, and whether those of us unable to afford fancy sun lamps could just get really close to our desk lamps for an hour a day.”

The sun didn’t come out in time for me to feel energetic enough to investigate that question, so instead this week I’m answering a question I’ve gotten from a number of people in East Lansing over the last year:

The question: How do I obtain information from the City of East Lansing under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)?

Our source: Tips on how to FOIA successfully have been provided for ELi’s readers by our own City FOIA clerk, Marie Wicks (shown above). As someone who has FOIA’ed a variety of governmental agencies, I can tell you that Wicks is the most responsive, helpful FOIA clerk I have ever encountered. If these instructions don’t answer your questions in full, you need simply email Wicks or stop by her office at City Hall to ask for more help.

Step 1: Know you can make a FOIA request to any governmental agency. You don’t have to be a reporter, a lawyer, or a member of any other particular profession, nor do you need to be a citizen of the City or State to which you are making the request. Anyone can make a FOIA request to any governmental body. According to Wicks, “If the public body [being FOIAed] can reasonably understand the request, we are legally obligated to supply the document. We are not, however, required to create a document that does not exist” to answer a question. FOIA is for obtaining copies of stuff that already exists. So:

Step 2: Understand what you can obtain. FOIA only works when you make a specific request for specific materials. Again, you cannot use FOIA to obtain something that doesn’t already exist; as an example, Wicks points out that “requesting a ‘rationale’ for the basis of a decision does not fall under FOIA.” You cannot use FOIA to ask the City to conduct a survey of anything. You can ask for copies of existing written materials (including copies of electronic communications) and audio and visual recordings. In short, you have to ask for specific things that you believe probably exist.

Step 3: Make sure you have the right jurisdiction. If you are asking the City of East Lansing for something that needs to be requested from the City of Detroit, you’re barking up the wrong tree. Wicks tells me, “I regularly get requests for the ELPS [East Lansing Public Schools] personnel files, as well as the county's annual salt budget for streets.” Not her job.

Step 4: Make a draft list of what you want. To do this I usually sit down and make myself a draft list of what kinds of materials might exist related to what I’m interested in. Say, for example, I’m interested in knowing what building permits were issued when for an East Lansing development project called Spartan Tower. I will make myself a list of what I’d like to see: copies of all building permits; copies of applications for the building permits; paper and electronic correspondence between the builder and the City about the permits. Says Wicks, “Requestors should make certain that requests are sufficiently narrow and specific so that we can understand the request.”

Step 5: Turn your draft list into a formal statement of what you want. This will be the statement that you actually turn into Wicks, so you want to invoke the Freedom of Information Act at the start of the statement. Example: “Under the Freedom of Information Act, for the project known as Spartan Tower, located at 100 Downtown Road in East Lansing, I write to request copies of any and all building permits, any and all applications for building permits, and any and all correspondence between the owners, developers, or representatives of Spartan Tower and the City of East Lansing, including electronic and paper correspondence.” If you prefer, you can enumerate the items you want.

Step 6: Turn it in! Says Wicks—and this makes her unusual as a FOIA clerk—“an individual looking for information under FOIA may simply send that request in the content of an e-mail. There is no need to complete a formal form and it should not be an intimidating process!” You can email Wicks at Make sure you include your name, postal address, and phone number.

Step 7: Wait. In the City of East Lansing, you will typically get a letter telling you they’re invoking an extension because they need extra time to fulfill your request, but you should know that the wait is relatively short – typically a few weeks at most – when you are requesting material via Wicks. (By contrast, the FDA never even acknowledged my FOIA request to them in 2010 and then made me wait three years for an answer, and I probably only got the answer then because I sued the FDA under FOIA. So know that if you FOIA outside East Lansing, your experience may vary from the experience with Wicks.)

Step 8: Follow-up as necessary. Most requests are fulfilled without charge, but you may get a response that your request is going to cost a certain amount if it is an unusually large or complex request. You can then decide whether to pursue it by agreeing to the charge, or narrow your request, or drop it. Sometimes Wicks will get back to you to ask if you would take an electronic version or want it on paper, etc. If the request turns up “nothing found,” talk with Wicks about why your request may have been wrongly stated. If the request turns up hints that there’s something more interesting to be pursued, you can go ahead and pursue it with another FOIA request.

If your FOIA request turns up something you think is worth sharing with others in East Lansing, consider reporting on it for ELi or sending it to us as a tip. Use our contact form to be in touch.

Our thanks to City of East Lansing Clerk Marie Wicks for sharing her tips.


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