After receiving a great deal of media attention, Gov. Rick Snyder's office has released 21,730 pages of documents related to the Flint water issue, many of them emails, at no charge. But media outlets that want to examine documents from the city of Flint or its water department should be prepared to pay up.
The Flint water crisis has sparked a national debate on municipal water treatment and triggered deep concerns among residents about their own health and their children’s. With all that in play, the clear demand and need for transparency has trumped the usual devices that government officials use to frustrate requests for documents under open records laws.
Demanding sky-high fees for certain records searches is one technique; officials know that placing price tag high enough is equivalent to making information unattainable.
The city of Flint provides an example. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy submitted a request under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act for emails from about 120 water and utility department employees in which the word “lead” appeared, covering the period from January 2014 to January 2015.
Flint’s responded by saying there was a $172,203 price tag for the public records, based on an assertion that the computer search would take 4,917 hours to complete.
“The city is not in a financial position to waive the cost of staff time required to assemble responses to FOIAs,” said David B. Roth, assistant city attorney, in a letter explaining the charge.
Roth acknowledged the high cost to complete the FOIA request, which he attributed to the broad nature of the Mackinac Center's request.
“We would be happy to work with you to narrow your request and find the documentation and information which will be responsive to your request,” Roth wrote.
The Mackinac Center's request was broad, but the public interest is served by knowing what city employees knew about the water system contamination. The contamination is likely the largest public health crisis in this state since chemicals called PBBs contaminated Michigan dairy products in the 1970s.
“Everyone recognizes this story is important — and Flint is going to have to do this for free in response to lawsuits anyway,” said Patrick Wright, the senior legal counsel for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Why would they seek to charge $170,000 for it?”