Info squeeze

Dec 19, 2007 at 12:00 am

Call it a guerrilla attack on Michigan's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

Seventeen bills currently in state House or Senate committees threaten to shield from public view certain kinds of information regarding, among other things, recycling companies, commercial water usage, public employees, concealed weapons permits for retired police officers and complaints to a proposed environmental ombudsman.

That's according to our buds at the Michigan Press Association.

Public employees' home addresses and telephone numbers would be kept private, along with electronics recyclers' contracts and retired law enforcement officers' applications for concealed weapons, for example.

"It's important that the members of Michigan's Legislature understand when they are considering a FOIA exemption that Michigan citizens paid for the information to be compiled," says Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the press association.

But among the pending bills are several examples of restricting information because of supposed trade secrets or privacy concerns.

Among those is a proposal to create an environmental ombudsman in the Department of Environmental Quality. The ombudsman would review department policies or actions that may be contrary to law or health and safety.

But the bill, introduced by Rep. Brian Palmer (R-Bruce Township), would allow the ombudsman's reports or recommendations to remain confidential as well as the office's correspondence. Complainants could remain confidential as well.

"It's all about oversight. Who's going to watch the watchdog?" says Dawn Phillip Hertz, attorney for the Michigan Press Association and veteran of decades of court battles over public access to governmental records. "I don't understand why this information can't be public. I don't see this as being proprietary information on the part of the ombudsman. I see this as proprietary information for the people of the state of Michigan."

Palmer's chief of staff, Phil Browne, says protecting the complainant's right to privacy and the public's interest in efficient, economical resolution was balanced against the public's access to information.

"This will be a step short of going through the court system. All parties have an interest in getting it resolved rather than incurring the expense of litigation. By having a FOIA exemption in there, it would keep everyone else from putting their two cents in while they're trying to get it resolved," Browne says. "It will be worked on in the committee process, all facets of the bill. This is our starting point, we'll go from here."

Alex Sagady, a Lansing-based environmental consultant, is particularly worried about a House bill that would keep secret how much water private companies take in annually from the Great Lakes.

"The bottlers, the cooling tower operators and agriculture — they all want secrecy," Sagady says. "And they shouldn't get it. Those kinds of exemptions should not be allowed in state law because it involves management of natural resources that are in the public trust. And you can't protect the public trust if all of the information about the use of those resources is secret."

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]