Here’s an example of FOIA gone all wrong. After receiving hundreds of requests for records under the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) from a resident, Kim Orlich, city officials in Belding, MI, northeast of Grand Rapids, were exasperated. Searches for records and hearing appeals in response to Orlich’s requests were consuming huge amounts of time, distracting staff and city council from other business, at no small expense to the community’s budget.
Belding officials discovered that a warrant had been issued for Orlich’s arrest in a civil debt case pending in St. Ignace, just the other side of the Mackinac Bridge. Belding police volunteered to deliver Orlich free of charge, after authorities in St. Ignace declined to drive down to pick her up.
With Orlich in jail, Belding officials theorized, they could deny her most recent requests because the city had no duty under state law to meet the requests of an inmate.
There are at least two ways to ameliorate the Orlich dilemma. The first, previously addressed on this blog, is to utilize technology available now to post all non-exempt records online in a searchable archive as soon as they are created or acquired.
The other way is to take on the issues of nuisance or burdensome requests in the statute itself. For example, among other provisions, the Illinois legislation (5 ILCS 140/1) states:
Section 2 (g) "Recurrent requester", as used in Section 3.2 of this Act, means a person that, in the 12 months immediately preceding the request, has submitted to the same public body (i) a minimum of 50 requests for records, (ii) a minimum of 15 requests for records within a 30-day period, or (iii) a minimum of 7 requests for records within a 7-day period. For purposes of this definition, requests made by news media and non-profit, scientific, or academic organizations shall not be considered in calculating the number of requests made in the time periods in this definition when the principal purpose of the requests is (i) to access and disseminate information concerning news and current or passing events, (ii) for articles of opinion or features of interest to the public, or (iii) for the purpose of academic, scientific, or public research or education...
Section 3 (g) Requests calling for all records falling within a category shall be complied with unless compliance with the request would be unduly burdensome for the complying public body and there is no way to narrow the request and the burden on the public body outweighs the public interest in the information. Before invoking this exemption, the public body shall extend to the person making the request an opportunity to confer with it in an attempt to reduce the request to manageable proportions. If any body responds to a categorical request by stating that compliance would unduly burden its operation and the conditions described above are met, it shall do so in writing, specifying the reasons why it would be unduly burdensome and the extent to which compliance will so burden the operations of the public body. Such a response shall be treated as a denial of the request for information. Repeated requests from the same person for the same records that are unchanged or identical to records previously provided or properly denied under this Act shall be deemed unduly burdensome under this provision...
Section 3.2 (a) Nothwithstanding any provision of this Act to the contrary, a public body shall respond to a request from a recurrent requester, as defined in subsection (g) of Section 2, within 21 business days after receipt. The response shall (i) provide to the requester an estimate of the time required by the public body to provide the records requested and an estimate of the fees to be charged, which the public body may require the person to pay in full before copying the requested documents, (ii) deny the request pursuant to one or more of the exemptions set out in this Act, (iii) notify the requester that the request is unduly burdensome and extend an opportunity to the requester to attempt to reduce the request to manageable proportions, or (iv) provide the records requested.
(b) Within 5 business days after receiving a request from a recurrent requester, as defined in subsection (g) of Section 2, the public body shall notify the requester (i) that the public body is treating the request as a request under subsection (g) of Section 2, (ii) of the reasons why the public body is treating the request as a request under subsection (g) of Section 2, and (iii) that the public body will send an initial response within 21 business days after receipt in accordance with subsection (a) of this Section. The public body shall also notify the requester of the proposed responses that can be asserted pursuant to subsection (a) of this Section.
(c) Unless the records are exempt from disclosure, a public body shall comply with a request within a reasonable period considering the size and complexity of the request. (Source: P.A. 97-579, eff. 8-26-11.)