Rick Snyder's administration put the free in Michigan's Freedom of Information Act by publicly posting 21,730 pages of documents about Flint's water problems.
The City of Flint, by contrast, now sets a $172,203 fee -- with an $86,100 deposit up front -- for electronic copies of employees' messages with the word "lead" sent between January 2014 and January 2015
That high fee and advance payment are "due to the voluminous nature of the information requested," a city representative responds to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Tom Gantert writes at its blog:
“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.
In the city's two-page reply last week, posted by the center, Roth says: "This good faith estimate is based on the broad nature of your request. . . . We anticipate 3 hours of employee time to search for and locate the records. Additionally, we anticipate 4,917 hours of employee time to review and separate exempt from nonexempt information from the records."
The request covers about 120 city water and utility department workers.
Gantert, the Midland policy group's senior correspondent, puts the response in context of Mackinac Center attention to seemingly high fees for access to public records. It has cited examples of school districts and local governments that wanted hundreds of dollars to find and photocopy archived documents.
In Tuesday's post at Capitol Confidential, he writes:
Demanding sky-high fees for certain records searches is one technique . . . to frustrate requests for documents under open records laws. . . .
Officials know that placing price tag high enough is equivalent to making information unattainable.
Gantert quotes Patrck Wright, the Mackinac Center's senior attorney:
“Everyone recognizes this story is important — and Flint is going to have to do this for free in response to lawsuits anyway. Why would they seek to charge $170,000 for it?”