OUR VIEW: Reform would make a FOIA law even better

By Daily News • Last Updated 11:02 am on Thursday, February 06, 2014

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is one of our state’s most beneficial, common sense laws.

For almost four decades now, citizens and journalists alike have been able to stand on near equal footing with public bodies by having the law behind them when requesting public documents.

While attending the annual Michigan Press Association (MPA) conference in Grand Rapids last weekend, we were interested to hear about proposed legislation aimed at reforming FOIA and making public records even more available to people at a more timely and more affordable rate way.

State Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, of the 65th District, is the sponsor of House Bill 4001, which was first introduced in January 2013.

Shirkey’s proposed bill calls for the following:

• Cap at 10 cents per copy the charge imposed by a government body for FOIA-requested documents.

• Require government bodies permit and not charge a fee for a FOIA requestor making his or her own copies with his or her own equipment during an on-site records inspection.

• Reduce by 20 percent the amount charged by a government body for FOIA-related administrative and copying costs for each day the government body’s response exceeds the five-day statutory deadline for responding to the FOIA request (plus allowable extensions) and increase the punitive damages from $500 to $5,000 to be awarded to a person who successfully challenges an improper FOIA denial.

State Rep. Tom McMillin, R-Rochester Hills, of the 45th District, is the sponsor of House Bill 4314, which was first introduced in February 2013.

McMillin’s proposed bill would create a state commission specifically to hear FOIA appeals. The commission would be comprised of lawmakers and media representatives to hear and investigate complaints about non-compliant state and local government bodies who have received FOIA requests.

The commission could either refer complaints to the Attorney General’s Office or issue their own opinions on the matter.

We like both of these FOIA reform proposals. There will always be a few who abuse FOIA and force local governments to spend unnecessary manpower and money in researching frivolous requests, but most who use FOIA do so in a responsible manner — and often at the benefit of the general public.

• • • •

Another highlight of the MPA conference was a debate between former United States Congressman and former Chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee Pete Hoekstra and British journalist Glenn Greenwald, who broke the National Security Agency (NSA) story with the help of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

The debate was an important one — spirited at times — as the two men faced off over whether Greenwald should have made public multiple details about how the NSA operates.

Hoekstra argued that making the NSA’s operating procedures public endangered America by letting the rest of the world in on how it functions. Greenwald countered that Americans deserve to know that their phone calls and online activity are being monitored.

We surely live in a different world, post-9/11. Last weekend’s Super Bowl coverage was largely focused on the security detail in and around the New York area. Security has also been the primary focus in early coverage leading up to the Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to begin today in Sochi, Russia.

Good security is a must, for our own physical safety, as well as for the important aspect of feeling safe in general. But who gets to decide how to draw the line between keeping Americans secure and spying on Americans?

It’s a very fine line, and some consider it a very gray line at that.

Editorial opinions are the consensus of The Daily News editorial board.

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