There must be a response

Michigan has a law known as the Freedom of Information Act which gives the public the right to see some legislative and executive government records.

In the statute, the legislature has made clear it is the “public policy” of the state to provide “full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of public officials and public employees”

That public policy statement is persuasive language and signals legislative intent that openness is preferable to secrecy, reports the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.

This has allowed the courts to rule in favor of disclosure if there is no clear exemption which allows the record to be kept secret.

This legislation is a key in a lawsuit filed by a resident of the Iron County Medical Care Facility in Crystal Falls.

In a case heard in Iron County Trial Court, Patrick Ward is suing the facility for not complying with the Freedom of Information Act.

Ward, a blind and disabled patient at Iron County Medical Care Facility, frequently uses Freedom of Information Act.

Too frequently, say facility officials. Facility officials say Ward has filed an average of one Freedom of Information Act request per day since January 2013. Much of the information Ward seeks deals with salary, fringe benefits, payroll information, checks, and employment contracts.

His requests for information have become so burdensome that facility officials have decided to discontinue responding to Ward’s Freedom of Information Act requests.

“The purpose of Freedom of Information Act is to provide public access to documents, not to create an intolerable burden on public bodies,” said Kenneth Lane, attorney for Iron County Medical Care Facility. “At some point, enough is enough.”

Ward, through his attorney Torger Omdahl, says that Iron County Medical Care Facility’s stand that it could deny Ward’s requests because they were overly burdensome is incorrect.

“I can find no reference to the concept of overly burdensome or anything like that in FOIA,” Omdahl said.

Dickinson County Circuit Court Judge Richard Celello agreed that Iron County Medical Care Facility’s “overly burdensome” defense was not valid. He said that only a court, and not the Iron County Medical Care Facility, can determine what constitutes “overly burdensome.”

The case is not over, though.

Judge Celello was unclear as to whether Iron County Medical Care Facility staff sufficiently understood what documents Ward was requesting, or even if those documents existed.

In one request, Ward sought “current budge provisions.” Lane said that a single “current budget provisions” document did not exist, and that the information would have to be pulled from different sources.

Judge Celello then ruled that Omdahl will have to establish that Ward sufficiently identified the documents in his requests and that the documents did exist in order to win the case.

Final judgment will be determined at a future court date.

Still, Ward has won a key battle to keep public information open to the public.

There are many publicly-funded agencies in our area. Sometimes, they may forget where their operating funds originate.

We must remember that a government-funded entity is not private. The government’s funds come from the people, and the people have a right to know how their money is being spent.

That means there must be a response to a Freedom of Information Act request.