Public records release delays blamed on staff shortage
ONTONAGON — Understaffed, the village office is slow in fulfilling Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, drawing criticism from community members who feel the delays are excessive.
FOIA allows citizens to access all records and documents held by public bodies with some exceptions.
In Ontonagon, FOIA requests go through Village Manager Joe Erickson. The requests are passed along on to whoever is best suited to fill them.
“I had asked for a FOIA request and asked for some information. I was given a letter by the manager that some of my information was denied, and the rest of it I wouldn’t get for 60 business days. That’s excessive,” said Sue Lockhart.
Lockhart said she understood there was a staffing shortage but felt the 60-business-day timeline was excessive. The shortage stems from clerk/treasurer Marcia Aho-Black being on leave, leaving payroll/billing clerk Tanya Weisinger to staff the office.
A search for a part-time employee remains underway.
Under FOIA rules, a response to a request must come within five business days of a submitted request, in which a request can be granted, denied or delayed an additional 10 business days.
With the staffing-attributed delay, Erickson noted a recent attorney general’s opinion recommended the fulfillment of the requests be made with the best estimate of the necessary timeline.
“He points out loss of personnel or other circumstances that would intervene with that, that you can extend that time for fulfilling the request, but we still have to reply whether it’s approved or denied within that 15-day period (of the deadline and extension request),” Erickson said.
The text outlines that a public body must respond within the FOIA time frame with approval or denial, but the documents are not required to be produced within the time frame, hence the 60 business-day delay.
Notably, the plaintiff may file suit, “if faced with an inordinate delay in the production the requested records,” the opinion states.
Also discussed was the denied FOIA information. The information that was denied was a check, which according to Lockhart and the FOIA office in Lansing should be a public document. Lockhart stated she had given an appeal letter to Council President Ken Waldrop as is standard for a denial.
The denial was attributed to a copy not being on hand, but according to FOIA officials that does not lead to an exemption.
“We are shorthanded,” Waldrop said. “I’m not going to sit there and pretend like I know what goes on day to day in this business office. That would be presumptuous of myself, but of course we will talk about it more and see what we come up with.”