As many of you have probably figured out, I care quite a bit about the well being of the racing industry in this state. Without it, my life (and this blog) gets a whole lot less interesting in a hurry.
As such, I want to make sure things are run properly and efficiently by those in charge.
With a rash of budget cuts this year, and undoubtedly more to come in the future, I became concerned, especially with figures indicating the money going into Lansing wasn’t the same as the money coming out.
Because of this, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Michigan Office of Racing Commissioner on June 15 requesting the ORC’s budgets for the last few years and information on some leads I wanted to further investigate. A few days later, I received a call from the ORC asking to resend my request and be more specific regarding what I wanted. This was understandable. After having it explained to me, my request was rather vague.
On June 23, I re-sent my FOIA request asking for the following items…
– Itemized lists of ORC revenues and expenditures by fiscal year 2005-2009.
– Records of Information Technology expenditures from 2006 fiscal year – present.
– Recored pertaining to what labs Equine Drug tests are sent and at what cost for the current and previous fiscal years.
A few days later, I got a letter back from the ORC. It said they had received my request, but here is the part of the letter where it gets interesting…
“The ORC is unable to respond to your request within the five business day time limit set forth by the FOIA statute, because of unavailability of staff. Therefore, we are extending the response time frame and will comply with your request on or before July 17, 2009.”
Okay, times are tough. I get that. So I played the waiting game.
Last Saturday, I got a letter in the mail from the ORC. The envelope seemed too small for all the information I had asked for. That’s because it wasn’t there. Instead, there was one piece of paper.
The following letter is presented verbatim to the one sent to me from the ORC. The only edits I have made are to contact information in order to protect the involved parties. I have also bolded some of the key points….
Dear Mr. Nevills,
Your request for information under the Freedom of Information Act was received in our office on June 24, 2009. You requested copies of “Itemized lists of ORC revenues & expendentures by fiscal year 2005-2009 Records of Information Technology expenditures from 2006 fiscal year – present Records pertaining to what labs Equine drug tests are sent and at what cost for the current and previous fiscal years”.
Your request has been approved.
Pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act, Act 422 of 1976, 15.234. Fees; waiver; deposit, computation of costs; application of section Sec. 4. (2) A public body may require at the time a request is made a good faith deposit from the person requesting the public record or series of public records, if the fee authorized under this section exceeds $50.00. The deposit shall not exceed 1/2 of the total fee.
We estimate the total amount of fulfilling this request to be $578.01. The charge is based on
– Approximately 12 hours of staff time for searching and reviewing documents: $521.82
– Approximately 4 hours of staff time for copying at $6.24/half hour: $49.92
– An estimated 120 copies at $.05 per page: $6.00
– 3 – 10 x 13 Kraft envelopes $0.27
– Postage has not yet been calculated
We will require a good faith deposit of $289.00. When we receive the deposit, we will begin researching your request and then forward any documents resulting from the search. Your check should be made to State of Michigan and sent to the Michigan Department of Agriculture, P.O. Box *****, Lansing, Michigan 48909. Please reference FOIA 09-15a on the check. If you have any questions, please call me at ***-***-****.
Before we go on, let’s do a little math…
– $521.82 for staff time searching and reviewing documents / 12 hours = $43.49 per hour
– $49.92 for staff time copying / 4 hours = $12.48 per hour
I am by no means an economist, but if the state is paying someone $12.48 an hour to run copies, I believe I have found the cause for Michigan’s budget deficit. Either that, or Michigan has the best paid interns among the nation’s state governments and I would like to know where to submit my application.
The same goes for the fee to search for documents. Many of the items I requested (at least the revenues and expenditures) should be readily available in case of government audit, and should not require someone who would be among the highest paid individuals in my hometown 12 hours to retrieve them. Even if a team of three or four people were splitting the $43.49/hour, they would still be getting paid quite well for their work. However, if the ORC is as understaffed as its first letter would lead me to believe, I doubt this would be a group effort.
The fact that the hours are estimated is also somewhat troubling. Not to question the work ethic of those who will be locating this information, but unless I am there to oversee the process myself, who is to say I am not paying for 11 hours of solitaire and email time and an hour of actual work?
Perhaps the most unsettling part of this letter is the final paragraph. Asking for money up front, then following with this sentence – “When we receive the deposit, we will begin researching your request and then forward any documents resulting from the search.” – gives me a helpless feeling. This sentence leads me to believe there is a chance I may be told “no records were found, but hey, thanks for the money!” At the racetrack, my gambling ventures rarely exceed a $4 exacta box. Am I willing to gamble $289 on something I might be told isn’t there? Either way, is the information worth that much?
Just to put this all into perspective, during my Public Affairs Reporting class last semester, I was assigned to cover the Isabella County Road Commission for my beat. As part of the class, I had to analyze the commission’s budget. I sent the Manager an email and picked up a copy from the secretary’s desk the next day. No cost. Granted, I am asking for considerably more information here, but the cost and difficulty of this process is quite a change from the Road Commission’s relative ease.
I do not make any money from this blog. I did not request the information for any person or organization but myself. Any personal gain I would receive from the information would strictly be the pursuit of truth and transparency. Like I said, I just want this industry to survive and thrive.
Don’t worry, I’m not asking for money to pay for this. I would, however appreciate any advice regarding my request and its cost from anyone more versed in FOIA law than myself.
Here are a few points that immediately came to my mind…
– Is this an attempt to scare me off? If so, is there anything I can do about it?
– If there is no way to bring the cost down, are there any organizations that assist with FOIA costs? Would this be something of interest to the ACLU (and do you really think the ORC wants them on their back)?
– Most importantly, is the ORC playing within the rules by asking for so much money? I would have no problem covering the cost of materials, but venturing well into three digits seems frivolous.
I do not want to be on the Racing Commission’s bad side. I really don’t. Before this, they have been nothing but good to me. But I feel like I am not being treated properly in this spot.