Your ELi: Our FOIA Appeal

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Saturday, December 5, 2015, 12:31 am
Alice Dreger, Publisher and Board President

Above: Screenshot of the presumably satirical "Steve Meadows" Facebook page.

This coming Tuesday evening, I will be representing ELi at the Ingham County Board of Commissioners’ meeting. We are appealing the County’s response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request related to the “Steve Meadows” mystery.

If you’ve been following the story, you know someone calling himself or herself “Steve Meadows” sent a campaign finance complaint against candidate Erik Altmann to Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum the Thursday before the East Lansing City Council election. Within three business hours, Byrum had taken “Steve Meadows’” complaint and turned it into a significantly more specific complaint to the State—a complaint broadened to include Steve Ross and Mark Meadows, the candidates from whose names it is now assumed “Steve Meadows” cobbled his pseudonym. By that evening, the Lansing State Journal (LSJ) had found out about the complaint and published an article about it that could reasonably have been expected to impact voter opinion. (Find the details with links to source documents here.)

“Steve Meadows” is obviously someone, but it doesn’t appear to be a person with that actual name. We can find no voter or other record for anyone of that name in this area, nor has anyone stepped forward to identify himself by that name as that person. Additionally, “Steve Meadows” never replied to the messages Byrum later sent to him telling him she had followed-up with a complaint to the state and then telling him she was “terribly sorry” that she had to turn over his email in response to a FOIA request. “Steve Meadows” seems to have existed just long enough to give Byrum a complaint to work from. (There is an apparently satirical Facebook page dedicated to him.)

In the end, Meadows and Altmann won the election, along with Shanna Draheim, and the three are now well into the thick of City Council business. But many people still want to know who created the short email complaint that spurred Byrum on.

Indeed, many people also want to know how reporter Dawn Parker of the LSJ got the story so fast. Unless Parker reveals her sources, we are unlikely ever to know. News outlets—including ELi—are generally protected under the First Amendment with regard to keeping sources confidential.

But the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) does allow us to try to find out whatever Clerk Byrum’s records can tell us about “Steve Meadows.” We’ve been using that.

We started the obvious way: by FOIAing the communications between Byrum and “Steve Meadows,” as well as her correspondence with others on the matter. In the response to that, our original FOIA request, the County’s FOIA coordinator Becky Bennett opted to redact (cross-out) “Steve Meadows’” email address. In many years of using FOIA at the federal and local level, I’ve never seen email addresses redacted. But Bennett says it is standard at Ingham County, because the County’s FOIA office sees email addresses as “personal information.” In response to an appeal made by an East Lansing resident who, separate from us, FOIAed Byrum’s “Steve Meadows”-related correspondence, the County Board of Commissioners upheld Bennett’s decision, in a split vote, not to make an exception in the case of “Steve Meadows” in terms of revealing an email address.

In ELi’s own chain of FOIA requests, I followed up Bennett’s redaction of the email address with a FOIA asking for the email headers of “Steve Meadows’” communication. This was provided but gave no information about the location from which the email was sent. It is most likely the email address will tell us nothing useful even if we do eventually get it; it is likely an email address that was created and used for this purpose only, and it will not be traceable.

So I also followed up my initial FOIA with a request meant to try to at least determine whether Byrum knows who “Steve Meadows” is. I asked for all written communications—including but not limited to emails, texts, and direct messages—as well as all notes and phone records on any communications between Byrum “and the person who called himself or herself ‘Steve Meadows’ in the email previously provided to me by your office.”

A clear response to this from Ingham County FOIA coordinator Becky Bennett would likely tell us whether Byrum knows who “Steve Meadows” is. That’s because even if there are no such records, the response indicating the reason for the denial should tell us whether Byrum (a) doesn’t know who “Steve Meadows” is, or (b) simply doesn’t have any records of communications with the person she knows is “Steve Meadows.” If Byrum does know who “Steve Meadows” is and has records of communications with him or her, then she has to turn over to us the name of the person by turning over those records.

But Bennett’s responses to my request have been anything but clear. Indeed, in one response, the reason listed for a “denial” was simultaneously given as “record does not exist” and “emails have been provided.” ELi’s Managing Editor Ann Nichols, a lawyer, suggested this appears to be a case of Schrodinger’s cat’s email, in that it simultaneously exists and doesn’t exist.

Given the confusing response, I’ve felt it necessary to appeal to the Board of Commissioners—while admitting I don’t know if I’m appealing a denial or a non-response to FOIA because I simply can’t make sense of the responses. After the County’s legal office called me to ask what would satisfy me, Bennett sent another confusing written response. Trying to resolve the matter, I told her in writing that I would be satisfied if the County gave me the following assurance:

“We have already provided to you all written communications, including but not limited to emails, texts, and direct messages, as well as all notes and phone records, involving any communications between Barb Byrum and the person who called himself or herself ‘Steve Meadows’ in the email previously provided to you under the Freedom of Information Act.”

But Bennett refused to do so, instead responding (all typos in original):

“I have provided you with the information that you have requested to the extent that it is in the possession of Ingham County, I have modified and resubmitted the FOIA Denial Form to you per your request, which is as far as a I am willing to go.  Please let me know if you wish to rescind your request for a FOIA Appeal hearing before the Board of Commissioners.”

Not at all sure what this meant, I answered that I would like to appeal to the Board of Commissioners.

If you’ve been watching the news out of Chicago, you know that FOIA is a critically important tool to reporters—including citizen reporters, like those of us at ELi. It’s one of the ways we can find out what’s going on in our governments, including with our elected officials, government agencies, and police departments. At this point, I’m not sure we’ll learn anything new about “Steve Meadows” from our appeal, but I’m committed to confirming FOIA has been properly followed by Ingham County.

The meeting where ELi’s FOIA appeal will occur is scheduled for Tuesday, December 8, 2015, starting at 6:30 pm, on the third floor of the Ingham County Courthouse in Mason. It will be video recorded and available subsequently online, and I’ll report for you what happens there.


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