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Michigan demands exorbitant fees for FOIA search
The state agency that tracks the salaries of school and state employees wants $3,800 before it will deliver those records, which were sought under th ...
Wednesday, September 20, 2017
by Tom Gantert

The state agency that tracks the salaries of school and state employees wants $3,800 before it will deliver those records, which were sought under the open records law. Earlier this year, the agency responded to a similar Freedom of Information Act request by asking for $96. Officials claim the much higher price now is required so they can implement quality assurance procedures after errors showed up earlier this year.

The state’s Office of Retirement Services is responsible for tracking the salaries and pensions of public school employees enrolled in the Michigan Public School Employees Retirement System.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy periodically requests the salaries of current public school employees, numbers that are contained in a pension-related database. Earlier this year, the state’s Office of Retirement Services charged $96 to cover the costs of compiling the information.

When the Mackinac Center submitted a request for updated 2016-17 salaries, ORS said the price was $3,800.

When asked to explain the difference, ORS said the higher price was “directly related to new quality assurance procedures that were adopted to ensure all information being released is complete and accurate for each individual request.”

The Freedom of Information Act is an important tool for discovering whether state agencies are doing their job. In this case, the job includes correctly maintaining school employee pay records that are used to determine the pension benefits these workers have earned. In effect, that rationale shifts the cost of quality assurance from the agency onto those seeking information — in many cases, making the act of obtaining public information prohibitively expensive.

On two previous occasions, the ORS gave the Mackinac Center records that had inaccuracies.

In March, it delivered salary figures in response to a FOIA request. Thousands of them turned out to be inaccurate. The agency said the mistake was caused by a technical error that resulted in wages being counted more than once, affecting the records of roughly 4,500 state employees.

In August, the Mackinac Center requested more records, and the agency released information that had an error: A state police employee was listed as receiving a $1 million payment as part of a program to encourage employees to delay retirement. The correct figure was $100,000.

Michigan Capitol Confidential asked the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, which houses the retirement agency, about the $3,800 charge. Department spokesman Caleb Buhs said in an email:

“To ensure that all data distributed from [the department] is accurate and absolutely no personal identifiable information is released, quality assurance reviews have been bolstered in the department. Recent events dictated a review of our FOIA procedures and changes were made to correct past concerns. The intent of these reviews is not to increase the cost of FOIA requests, but to make certain that the information disseminated is correct and individual’s security is protected.”

“These estimates are just that, estimates of how much time we believe it will take to complete our review. If the ultimate hours are less, then the price will be reduced.”

Tom Gantert writes for Michigan Capitol Confidential, from where this article is adapted.

Editor note: Michigan's Republican governor is Rick Snyder.


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