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Marine City Commission denies appeal of FOIA fees

Photo courtesy of CTV Community Television The Marine City Commission recently denied an appeal regarding the payment of fees for a FOIA request.

Resident sought procedure for dismissal of election worker

By Barb Pert Templeton

When the staff at the Marine City offices receives a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request they do their best to respond in a timely manner and don’t often attach charges for the service.

When a recent FOIA request by city resident Philip Oleksiak came with a $7.60 price tag it prompted him to appeal the charges. He has made numerous FOIA requests for documents over the last year in an effort to keep informed on city matters.

The appeal was an agenda item at the commission’s Sept. 15 meeting and led to a discussion with Oleksiak and City Clerk Shannon Adams, the city’s FOIA coordinator, both addressing officials.

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At the discussion’s conclusion Mayor Pro Tem Jacob Bryson made a motion to impose the fee of $7.60 and deny Oleksiak’s appeal of the FOIA request. His motion was seconded by Mayor Cheryl Vercammen. The motion passed, 4-2, with Commissioners Lisa Hendrick and William Klaassen voting no on the issue and Commissioner John Kreidler absent.

Photo courtesy of CTV Community Television
Marine City resident Philip Oleksiak speaks to the city commission about his appeal of a $7.60 charge for FOIA documents he requested from the city.

The commission noted that they planned to discuss the dismissal of longtime city election worker Barb Watson, 76, at a closed session following the regular meeting on Sept. 15. The clerk had previously stated that Watson was dismissed due to her conduct at commission meetings and social media posts.

In this excerpt from a letter Adams sent to the mayor and commission dated July 27, 2022 she explained the situation:

Upon being hired by the City in the role of City Clerk, I was informed that there had been discussions about not continuing to call Ms. Watson to work future elections, however the decision was made to allow her to work the May election. Immediately preceding the May election there were further discussions related to dismissing her due to concerning posts made on Facebook directed towards city employees. Being my first election with the city, I opted to give Ms. Watson a chance and allowed her to work the May election. Since that time, negative and slanted Facebook posts by Ms. Watson continued during the week leading

up to then culminating with her behavior at the City Commission meeting of July 21, 2022. That left me with grave concerns related to Ms. Watson’s ability to maintain impartiality, especially since we do have current Commissioners who will be on the November ballot.

When contacted today, City Manager Holly Tatman stated that while she couldn’t yet share the results of the closed session where the topic was supposed to be discussed, she hoped to be able to do so by the next city commission meeting on Oct. 20.

Oleksiak and Adams speak out

At the recent regular meeting, Attorney Robert Davis put the appeal request into some context. He said state rules allow the city to assess charges for FOIA requests that include the time spent in searching for the documents and costs for making copies.

If there’s an appeal to those charges the individual is allowed to bring the issue to the city commission for reconsideration and if the result isn’t satisfactory, the appellant can take the matter to court.

Oleksiak took to the podium and filled the commission in on his FOIA request and why he was appealing the fee.

Photo courtesy of CTV Community Television
Marine City Clerk Shannon Adams explains why she needed to charge a resident for a recent FOIA request.

“I know the fee is small, $7.60, but it’s the principal that I’m basically appealing on,” Oleksiak said. “The information that I requested should have already been researched and in the possession of our city’s clerk or city’s FOIA officer.”  

He said his Aug. 8 FOIA request was in regards to the termination of an election inspector on July 25 and he just wanted to know what procedure was utilized in the dismissal. 

“Ultimately I’m seeing this as am I being charged a fee when our city clerk had just used the procedure to perform that function in an official capacity (when terminating the election worker) so then I feel I’m paying for the clerk to do their primary job function,” Oleksiak told the commission.

City Clerk Shannon Adams said she got Oleksiak’s FOIA request on Aug. 9 and despite him now stating she should have had the information at her finger tips, that was not the case.

“I am aware of my job and I’m aware of what my job requirements are, I did not need to consult the ordinances or the election manual or the procedure manual because I’m already aware of my job function,” Adams said. 

Once she got this FOIA request she stated that she spent 25 minutes reading and reviewing various documents including: a personnel policies handbook, the clerk’s procedure manual, clerk’s election manual, clerk’s job description, bureau of elections handout and city ordinances.

Adams then emailed Oleksiak on Aug. 11 explaining the actions taken in response to his FOIA, the time involved and the costs incurred. She said a payment of $7.60 was required and once paid, the documents would be released.

The clerk also noted that when Oleksiak filed his appeal to get the charges removed, he said something along the lines of not understanding why there was a fee.

“That’s pretty much the whole of it; I was aware of my job function at the time of the dismissal and I did not need to dig into manuals until such time as I received the FOIA,” Adams said.

Commissioners weigh-in

Commissioner Ross said that while he knows his job inside and out and can simply execute a report accordingly, if he had to produce data as to where that information came from it would take time.

“I know my job function but if it was like yeah prove it, that would take me a couple of hours,” Ross said.

Commissioner Lisa Hendrick said the clerk is supposed to have a procedure in place in order to dismiss the worker, she wondered if there was one? Adams said yes there is a procedure but reminded Henrick that the subject of the dismissal would be addressed in a closed session of the commission, this discussion was just about the fees.

Hendrick than asked if Adams pulled information from various sources for the FOIA why did she do that after she “got rid of the worker” instead of before that step was taken.

Adams reiterated that she knows her job and didn’t need to refer to the manuals except to further explain her decision to the FOIA requester.

Vercammen said the city doesn’t want to set a precedent of not charging when they keep receiving FOIA, after FOIA, after FOIA requests. 

“Considering what the taxpayers pay for you to take your time and look up FOIA’s, this $7.60 is nothing,” Vercammen added. 

When contacted on Sept. 20 about his appeal being denied Oleksiak said he picked up the information and paid the $7.60. He looks forward to the outcome of the commission’s closed session regarding the dismissal of the election worker.

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