Your ELi: The City Just Made FOIA More Transparent

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Friday, March 1, 2019, 2:21 pm
Alice Dreger, Publisher

The City of East Lansing announced today a new system for handling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that will make the process more efficient and more transparent. The benefits of this new approach are big for the public, including for East Lansing Info as your public service local news source.

FOIA is the means by which the public can obtain public documents that are not otherwise available. There are a wide variety of documents that are FOIA-able, including records related to City policies and the development of legislation, financial records, building and planning department records, and much more.

In East Lansing, the City Clerk’s office is primarily responsible for handling FOIA requests, except for police department- and fire department-related requests. City Clerk Jennifer Shuster and her staff have had to manage using a relatively outdated system by which requests are typically made through email. If a person wanted to see what other people were requesting, she or he would have to make a FOIA request to see a log of FOIA requests.

Now the City Clerk’s office is trying a new cloud-based, hosted system from JustFOIA. While the system is being used on a trial basis, the benefits of it for our reporting staff and the general public are already clear.

Under the new system, FOIA requests can be made using a simple online form. The upside of this over email is that a person new to FOIA can easily fill in the form. (Note that the form indicates a per-copy charge, but that’s only if you’re asking for paper copies. Most FOIA requests can be answered with electronic copies without any fee being assessed.)

Additionally, the new system provides a monthly FOIA log, set to be updated on the last day of every month. The log shows who has made a request for what, what the response deadline is, and whether the City is charging for the request. Making this data available to everyone means:

  • Reporters from ELi and other news outlets can see what people are interested in finding out, providing ideas about what we might investigate that we wouldn’t otherwise know about.
  • Reporters from ELi and other news outlets can see who has made the request, potentially providing a source for an investigatory assignment.
  • Members of the public can see what kinds of things are requested through FOIA, educating them about how they can use FOIA to obtain information that is supposed to be public.
  • Members of the public can see whether every request is being treated equally.
  • People who want to send ELi or other news outlets tips on particular reporting subjects can see what we’re working on. (This also enables them to contact us to tell us whether what we’re seeing in a FOIA response is all that we should be seeing from the City’s records.)

When I received the City’s press release about this new system today, I called attorney Mark Grebner to ask him if he’s ever seen a municipality make a FOIA log public on a regular basis, as East Lansing appears poised to do. (Grebner is somewhat legendary for the number of FOIA requests he makes through the State of Michigan.)

Grebner noted first that FOIA logs are public records, so one can always FOIA the logs. But, he said, “I’ve never seen a publicly-accessible online log of FOIA in any municipality in the State. It’s possible one is out there but I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

I ran past Grebner my list of “reasons the online posted log is good news,” and he concurred with my assessment. It does indeed “provide increased transparency,” as City Manager George Lahanas said in a press release about the new system.

If you take a look at the first posted FOIA log, you’ll see one name a lot: mine. My first FOIA requests, back in 2010, were at the national level (and ultimately involved suing the FDA and Office for Human Research Protections for failure to follow FOIA law). But nowadays I do make heavy use of local FOIA for East Lansing Info’s readers.

My relatively high use of local FOIA dates back to a fantastic lecture I heard at the 2016 LION Publishers conference in Chicago. (LION stands for Local Independent Online News; ELi is a member of LION and I attend the yearly conference.) The presentation by University of Arizona School of Journalism Director David Cuillier was an amazing pep talk on the use of FOIA to serve the public.

Cuillier taught us at that seminar to set aside time every week to FOIA something. His reasoning was this: it’s a key part of your job as an investigative journalist, and by FOIAing regularly, you get everyone around you used to the idea that public records are public records – from your own reporters to your readers to the people who work in your government.

Many of the FOIA requests I put in are for stories I am personally working on for ELi’s readers, but some are for other ELi reporters. Still others are for people who contact me and ask if I would file a FOIA request for them so that their name will not appear in the record. I’m happy to do this – public records are public, but sometimes a person looking into public affairs need a little cover. (Also, I get to see what they get to see when the response comes back.)

Want to learn more about FOIA? Read the “Ask ELi” we did with former City Clerk Marie Wicks. Want to ask our help filing a FOIA? Contact us via our dedicated contact page by choosing the “Ask ELi” option.


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