$77,000 Question

Freedom of information


Freedom of Information Acts (FOIAs) are intended to make it easy for citizens to obtain government documents. But when Michigan mom Sherry Smith filed a request for email records regarding her special-needs son, Goodrich Area Schools told her it would cost $77,718.75.

"It will be necessary to hire someone to assist us with sorting through the email content you have requested," Superintendent Michelle Imbrunone wrote in response to Smith's request. "The current estimate is that it may require up to 4,687.5 hours at the current clerical hourly employee rate of $16.58 per hour."

In July, Michigan amended its FOIA law to prevent public bodies from refusing, delaying, or charging "unreasonable fees" to fulfill requests. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder said the changes should remind government employees that they "are working on behalf of our residents, who should not be discouraged from learning about how that government is serving them."

With help from Phil Ellison, a local attorney specializing in FOIA law, Smith filed a new request under the amended law. When the school system didn't respond within the required 21-day timeframe, Ellison filed a legal action against the bureaucracy for failing to comply with regulations.

Less than a week later, Ellison received "hundreds of pages of emails" from the school system. "Apparently, it didn't take—surprise, surprise—4,000 hours to complete the request," he says. "There was no charge either."