Posted on 19 March 2015.
Michigan Liquor Control Commission waives fees for virtual copies
In celebration of Sunshine Week (March 15-21), the Mackinac Center for Public Policy announces its victory in persuading the Michigan Liquor Control Commission to release public information at a more reasonable cost. After being sued by the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation, the MLCC removed the charges for paper copies that do not exist.
On Nov. 7, 2014, Fiscal Policy Director Michael LaFaive requested data from the government agency in person while conducting research on “post and hold” rules for alcohol prices. Those rules allow wholesale distributors to collude and keep prices artificially high. Empirical research estimates consumers pay 6.4 percent to 30 percent more because of this practice.
An MLCC employee told LaFaive the data could be transferred to a flash drive on the spot. Not having a flash drive at the time, LaFaive offered to return in person with one to obtain the information. LaFaive agreed to submit an official Freedom of Information Act request.
On November 14, MLCC’s FOIA coordinator said a cost estimate and deposit was required for processing. The invoice estimated the cost of to be $50.22 for an hour and a half of labor ($33.48/hour) and $1,500 for copying 6,000 pages, at 25 cents a page.
On Jan. 22, 2015, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit seeking relief from being charged for 6,000 virtual pages that did not exist on paper. Because of the lawsuit, the government agency withdrew its cost for digital files.
“Keeping government transparent and accountable to taxpayers is a primary concern for us,” said Mackinac Center Legal Foundation Senior Attorney Derk Wilcox. “Taxpayers have a right to this public information. They should not be charged exorbitant amounts of money for documents that are rightfully theirs, nor should they be charged for virtual copies of public documents. The MLCC tried to put a roadblock in the way of the public getting information. Our lawsuit changed its mind.”
In 2013, the foundation sued the city of Westland for charging an illegal gatekeeping fee and overcharging for labor and copying costs. As a result of the lawsuit, Westland changed its policies to comply with the law.
“The Mackinac Center uses FOIA to make sure government is serving the public, not the system,” said Executive Vice President Michael J. Reitz, who also serves as a board member of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. “Government agencies should be willing to comply with the law rather than try to find ways to avoid it.”
“The MLCC FOIA coordinator said it was waiving fees for hypothetical copies ‘in the spirit of cooperation,’” said LaFaive. “We hope that cooperation continues when we request public documents in the future.”