FOIA exemptions play role in Flint water crisis
Facing pressure from citizens calling for his resignation because of his office’s role in the Flint water crisis, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder released his e-mails from 2014-15 regarding his involvement.
A portion of the information in the e-mails is redacted. Critics of his administration claim there is more relevant communication material Snyder’s office is withholding.
FOIA is a federal law that allows for the full or partial disclosure of previously unreleased information and documents controlled by the United States government.
Michigan is one of just two states that has a shield law, which protects the executive branch from the Freedom of Information Act. All states have freedom of information laws that govern documents at the state and local levels.
Typically, any United States citizen can request official documents from a public body for any reason.
Robin Hermann, an attorney for the Michigan Press Association, said it is “not entirely clear” why Snyder’s office redacted some information.
“Typically in response to a FOIA request, the public body will redact information that falls under one of the exemptions,” Hermann said. “The (Michigan) legislature (and employees thereof) is specifically exempt.”
One typical exemption is matters that could harm an internal investigation or pending legal matter.
In many cases, a public body’s FOIA officer or legal counsel decides which information will be redacted before records are released.
Snyder’s office claims some of the most heavily redacted content in his recently released e-mails is regarding an unrelated lawsuit, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Journalism faculty Tim Boudreau explained why FOIA’s role is critical in a time of crisis.
“The Flint water crisis is an example of why a strong open records law is important,” he said. “It protects the public interest by promoting greater government transparency. Ready access to those documents is a good way to find out who is responsible for the mistakes that were made in Flint.”
Michigan’s shield law from FOIA for the governor’s office is rare and controls what gets released to top officials.
“Snyder's office is exempt by FOIA because it's argued the exemption promotes open, frank and candid discussion of policy issues, especially policies in the formative stages,” Boudreau said. “Michigan is one of just two states that exempts the governor's office, so it seems 48 other states have found a way to protect open discussion while providing greater transparency.”