Tuscola County residents and taxpayers take note: If you want information about what your county commissioners and other elected officials are doing when not in meetings, you’d better have a good old-fashioned checkbook handy.
In what appears to be a blatant attempt to circumvent disclosing certain information sought by The Tuscola County Advertiser, officials have socked the county newspaper of record with two cost estimates totaling $1,200 for requests made under the Freedom of Information Act (and that’s an estimated cost – before a single copy of anything is even provided).
In one request, The Advertiser sought information about the recent technology set-up that – at least so far – appears to have been put in place so one or two of your elected officials could travel during these long winter months and participate in meetings via video (while Tuscola County taxpayers foot the bill to allow them to participate in the meetings they were elected to take part in, including one instance last year when one of the commissioners had palm trees swaying in the background).
The response from Mike Hoagland, controller, Tuscola County?
“We have reviewed the information you requested and estimated it will require approximately 4 hours (16 – 15 minute increments) of the Information Technology Director’s time to complete ($176.48 includes 4 hours of wages and 50% of fringe costs). It is estimated 1 hour (4 – 15 minute increments) of my time will be required ($62.77 includes 1 hour of wages and 50% of fringe costs). This is a total estimated cost of $239.25.”
Keep in mind, the request was simply to put a price tag on how much taxpayer money was spent on setting up the technology system in the publicly owned county building.
One would think that a government body that seems so concerned with every single penny spent by every other county department – every single employee of the county – would have this information readily available.
But no. The same board that time-and-time again holds every county department to the highest level of financial accountability – and continually points out the importance of trimming fat when it comes to spending – can’t even tell you in less than four hours how much money it spent on a few laptops and the network to connect them to the Internet.
And there’s more.
The Advertiser also sought information about communications between county officials – including Drain Commissioner Bob Mantey, who reportedly has several leases with wind energy companies – and said wind energy companies and/or their representatives.
The purpose was to try and identify why, all of the sudden, they have put themselves in the middle of the debate over wind energy, as The Advertiser reported last week.
Until now, and with the exception of a mostly symbolic resolution, they have taken the approach of letting individual townships handle the matter individually.
Simply put, the 180-degree turn raises questions and The Advertiser tried to get to the bottom of it for you, the readers and tax-paying public.
Hoagland sent a bill to The Advertiser that included the following (click on document image to read whole response):
Estimates are as follows:
1. County lawyer legal assistance. Estimated 2 hours (8 – 15 minute increments) = $106.80
2. Controller/Administrator examination of records for submittal. Estimated 6 hours (24 – 15 minute increments) = $376.62.
3. Commissioner Kirkpatrick research of 3 years and 24 days of email and other correspondence. Estimated 3 hours (12 – 15 minute increments) = $22.86
4. Commissioner Trisch research of 3 years and 24 days of email and other correspondence. Estimated 3 hours (12 – 15 minute increments) = $22.86
5. Commissioner Young research of about 1 year of email and other correspondence. Estimated 1 hour (4 – 15 minute increments) = $7.62
6. Commissioner Vaughan research of about 1 year of email and other correspondence. Estimated 1 hour (4 – 15 minute increments)= $7.62
7. Drain Commissioner 3 years and 24 days of email and other correspondence. Estimated 3 hours (12 – 15 minute increments)= $129.93.
8. Drain commissioner lawyer legal assistance. Estimated 2 hours (8 – 15 minute increments)= $106.80
9. Information Technology Director. Estimated 4 hours (16 – 15 minute increments)= $176.48.
ESTIMATED TOTAL – $957.59
By comparison, last year The Advertiser paid $164.61 to Michigan State Police for a report in connection with an area death. That included five hours of labor and 108 double-sided paper copies.
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, passed in 1976 in the wake of the Watergate scandal, aims to improve public access to government documents.
Abuses of FOIA are commonplace, and often lead to litigation.
Public officials continuously try to skirt compliance, or at least try their best to make it difficult for those who seek information to which they are entitled.
There have been high-profile cases, such as those involving the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the Flint water crisis. As Michigan Capital Confidential reported Tuesday, Rep. Phil Phelps, D-Flushing, filed a FOIA request related to the Flint River in 2015 and initially was stonewalled – until State Attorney General Bill Schuette became involved.
There are other examples, too.
For instance, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy was hit with a bill for about $1,500 for a request from the Michigan Liquor Control Commission in 2015. The LCC ultimately relented when the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation sued.
As the Mackinac Center reported, Senior Attorney Derk Wilcox of the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation said, “Taxpayers have a right to this public information. They should not be charged exorbitant amounts of money for documents that are rightfully theirs…”
We couldn’t agree more.