Warren Mayor Lies About FOIA Concerns


In my experience filing many Freedom of Information Act requests, some government agencies are much better than others. Some do their best to comply with the law and provide the information requested; others do everything they can to delay and deny such requests. The mayor of Warren, Jim Fouts, is a great example of the latter. Jeff Wattrick, a longtime Michigan journalist, put in a FOIA request for communications between Fouts and others in his administration about FOIA requests and found that he’s essentially been lying about the issue.

Last fall, Warren Mayor Jim Fouts began complaining about what he called intrusive and excessive Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

In January, he told WWJ that, among other things, he was concerned the identities of citizens who provided him with crime tips could be exposed by FOIA requests for copies of his city email.

Fouts also complained about FOIA in his March State of the City address and again in a May C&G Newspapers article

Turns out, Jim Fouts probably wasn’t as concerned with FOIA as his public statements may lead one to believe. Warren has no record of Fouts communicating with anyone about FOIA policy.

This is an important fact because, had he spoken to anyone worthwhile, Fouts would have learned thatinformation identifying informants is exempted from disclosure under Michigan’s FOIA law. It’s black-letter law.

His assertion to WWJ that people supplying him with “tips about drug houses or about a complaint about a neighbor, about a city employee” may have their identities compromised is a pure red herring.

In addition to this informant canard, Fouts is fond of citing a request of information about bathroom key card swipes as an example of a silly FOIA that burdens Warren. What he rarely explains is that Warren denied that request for legitimate security reasons, as is permitted under the Freedom of Information Act.

Fouts’ anti-FOIA crusade unravels further, when you take a look at his argument that FOIA compliance is an expensive burden on Warren’s City Attorney. For all his public gripes, our request didn’t yield a single communication either to or from Fouts about the cost of FOIA compliance, in employee time or money.

I don’t really care whether FOIA requests are a burden no the city or not. It’s part of the job. That’s the entire reason why we have such laws, so government officials can’t avoid transparency by claiming it’s too expensive.

Comments

  1. Michael Heath says

    Expensive compliance to FOIA requests is a symptom of a defect, not a root cause defect itself. The root cause defect is instead a lack of governmental transparency. The corrective action would be to reduce the number and expense of FOIA requests by becoming more transparent.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    Residents of Warren direct their crime tips to the mayor, not to law enforcement agencies? Even if I had reason to distrust the local police, I would go to the state police or the FBI, not to the mayor’s office.

  3. wscott says

    I don’t really care whether FOIA requests are a burden no the city or not.

    Having been on the other side of a few FOIA requests, I can state definitively that yes, they are a pain in the ass. But…

    It’s part of the job.

    Absolutely right. Small price to pay for good (or at least less-bad) government!

  4. Trebuchet says

    Fouts’ anti-FOIA crusade unravels further, when you take a look at his argument that FOIA compliance is an expensive burden on Warren’s City Attorney. For all his public gripes, our request didn’t yield a single communication either to or from Fouts about the cost of FOIA compliance, in employee time or money.

    They may be making an unwarrented assumption that the city complied honestly with the FOIA request.

  5. says

    The notion of government secrecy _at_ _all_ is contradictory in a democracy. Think about it for a second and you’ll see why.

    Of course, that leaves the interesting conundrum of how to carry out grand strategy, diplomacy, or military preparations without secrecy. But, in a superpower it would be plausible to simply conduct these things in the open as well. If one’s grand strategy is good enough, it shouldn’t rely on secrecy for its success or failure.

  6. jesse says

    @Marcus Ranum — that latter point is why I think that frankly, 99% of the secrecy the government engages in is profoundly counterproductive.

    I look at it this way: if you believe in what you are doing, shout it from the rooftop. Other countries — and your own people — should support you if it’s so wonderful.

    If you have almost no secrets, all the spies in the world will do a hostile power no good.

    When you play chess, or the Chinese variant that resembles “Stratego” (where you can’t see which pieces are in place, though you know where they are) it’s worth noting that the fact that you can’t see which piece it is turns out to be of relatively little value. And in chess, of course, seeing the board doesn’t really matter at all if you haven’t got a good grasp of the game. Good strategy in either case doesn’t depend on secrecy very much.

    Also, let’s be real here: assume the Chinese had I dunno, access to every one of the President’s phone calls. Assume they had a guy who could record all the meetings.

    What might it tell them that they really don’t know already? That the US might respond militarily to an incursion into Taiwan, say? That the US isn’t interested in managing a major conflict over the Spratlys Islands? The Chinese premier would be saying “No shit, Sherlock, mail that to 1950 when it might have been useful information.”

    Not that there aren’t instances where keeping information non-pubic is useful, but in most day-to-day situations, even in diplomacy, I can’t see where it helps much. One reason the US and USSR avoided war was because they knew what the hot-button points were, they each knew what the other side was not likely to take, largely because of the spies. Had they all said it publicly form the get-go it wold have saved everyone a step and avoided the situations where they didn’t know what the hell was going on — as in the Cuban Missile Crisis and Able Archer. (In the former case, the US was a bit too cavalier about placing missiles in Turkey and not realizing the internal battle any Soviet premier would face after that, and the Russians thought Cuba a tit for tat without realizing that US saw a difference between nuclear missiles and the stuff in Turkey. In the latter, the Russians just didn’t know what was happening and nobody on our side picked up the bloody phone).

  7. Michael Heath says

    Jesse,

    To illustrate your argument arguing for increased transparency; one reason the tech industry has both done so well over the past couple of decades and became the emulated leader in management techniques, is they more frequently practice business in the ‘open kimono’ style with many of their strategic stakeholders. The auto industry also does then when it comes to their upstream supply chain. [I have no experience in the down-stream side with their dealers so I avoid making assertions on that aspect.]

    Increased transparency also increases understanding and opportunities to give on one item of little or modest cost or concern which benefits the other side greatly. Such graciousness causes the party who benefitted to reciprocate; we’re psychologically wired to reciprocate. That’s Negotiation 101 (literally), where the tech industry and other advanced supply chains provides many illustrations validating the beneficial results of this approach.

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