Advance Notice: Briefs

FOIA requirements relaxed for 2 months under gov’s order

By: - April 7, 2020 10:34 am

Dick Pearce, selling newspapers on the corner of Douglas and Broadway in Wichita, Kansas, 1947 | Fox Photos/Getty Images

If you’re looking to file an open records request in Michigan, it might be awhile until you get some answers.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-38 Sunday relaxing requirements for responding to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests made by mail or fax during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The order is now in effect and continues through 11:59 p.m. June 4.

Whitmer said the order protects workers who handle FOIA requests by allowing public bodies to defer portions of requests that would require workers to report to work in-person. Many people in Michigan are working from home right now due to Whitmer’s stay at home order, which went into effect March 24 to help slow the spread of the disease caused by a new coronavirus.

Under the order, a public body must respond to a request received at its physical office via mail or fax within 10 business days after an employee receives and views the request. If a request requires a search of physical records, it will be deferred until after Michigan’s state of emergency and disaster declaration have been lifted.

The order also requires public bodies to communicate in writing with the person filing the request if they are unable to fulfill the request without a search of physical public records. The person filing the request then has the option to amend their request to include electronic records only. If a public body is unable to fulfill a request in the timeframe, they specified because of remote work and social distancing, then a written notice will be sent to the person filing the request to explain why there is a delay.

“During a time of crisis, it’s crucial that Michiganders have access to the information they need to stay safe. My administration is committed to ensuring that while also protecting public health and encouraging social distancing,” Whitmer said. “This order encourages public bodies to respond to FOIA requests in a timely manner and in the safest way possible.”

Lisa McGraw of the Michigan Press Association (MPA) said that the group advocating for print journalists “understands the need for official words on this to clarify to government officials the essential nature of transparency in government at this time.”

She added that the MPA “appreciates the governor’s recognition of FOIA as a core priority.” McGraw said MPA members will continue to use FOIA and the Open Meetings Act “as tools to gather information for Michigan citizens as they deal with this crisis.”

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Madeline Ciak
Madeline Ciak

Madeline Ciak is a former Michigan Advance reporter. She’s a University of Michigan-Flint graduate and previously worked as a digital media manager at NBC25/FOX66 in Flint and a weekend producer at ABC12.