By Kristen M. Daum
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration has preached transparency and
the need for residents to know how their government works.
A key part of that transparency is the ability to review state records, such as the billions
of dollars in contracts Michigan has with private businesses that provide goods and
services to help the government function.
The bulk of state contracts flow through the Michigan Department of Technology, Management & Budget, which houses the state’s central procurement office and publishes all of its 1,200 contracts with outside vendors — some $32 billion worth — on its website. These agreements range from health care insurance for state workers to office supplies.
Three state agencies have the authority to manage their own contracts independently: The Department of Transportation, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and the state lottery bureau. But two of the three — MEDC and MDOT, which has the third-largest departmental budget in state government — don’t offer the same transparency in disclosing their contract agreements.
When asked under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Lansing State Journal to review their contracts, an MEDC official said it would cost $1,700 just to allow a reporter to review the contacts. And an MDOT official said the agency would need tens of thousands of dollars before making the information available for review — information similar to what DTMB offers online.
Meanwhile, the Michigan Lottery quickly fulfilled the FOIA request, which showed the bureau manages only one agreement on its own. It has a nearly seven-year contract — worth $320 million — with GTech Corp, a Rhode Island-based company that provides the equipment retailers use to sell lottery tickets.
Michigan’s FOIA gives everyone the right to request public documents and information from their governments, except in specific cases. Governments have the option to charge for the time and resources it takes to gather and copy documents.
MDOT and MEDC officials said because — unlike DTMB — they don’t have centralized procurement offices to manage the millions of dollars vested in outside vendors, it would take department staff dozens of hours to compile the contracts for review.
The State Journal submitted three FOIA requests on Aug. 20, asking to look at all contracts for goods and services provided to MDOT, the MEDC and the Michigan Lottery.
The requests were prompted by a State Journal analysis in mid-August of the $32 billion worth of contracts administered by DTMB. The analysis found 78 percent of the contract dollars were awarded to Michigan-based companies.
In a written response to the State Journal’s FOIA request, MEDC officials said it would cost about $1,700 and take 48 hours for their staff to “run reports, review and examine, separate and extract information and copy the records” for the 512 contracts the agency previously told the State Journal it had with outside vendors.
MEDC officials declined to answer follow-up questions last week, including what information might need to be reviewed for redaction in public contracts already in effect. The agency said previously its contracts involved support services such as advertising and computer consulting.
Meanwhile, state transportation officials said in their written response last week that the State Journal’s request to review all of MDOT’s contracts was “exceptionally broad” — so much so that it’s “impossible to accurately estimate the amount of man hours it will take to compile all of the data,” wrote Bill Perod, MDOT’s freedom of information coordinator.
“I would easily anticipate your request to eclipse well into tens of thousands of dollars,” Perod wrote.
MDOT’s written response also came several days late, in violation of state law, and MDOT spokesman Jeff Cranson either would not or could not explain why.
Under Michigan’s FOIA, government entities must provide a written initial response within five business days of receiving a request. Perod did not provide MDOT’s written response until Sept. 4, 10 business days after the State Journal submitted its request.
MDOT has the third-largest budget of any state agency at $3.4 billion this fiscal year.
Michigan Press Association officials said the amounts MEDC and MDOT are asking for to fulfill the FOIA requests “seems excessive.”
“These are taxpayer dollars and taxpayers have a right to know where their dollars are going, without someone having to pay excessive amounts of money,” said Lisa McGraw, MPA’s public affairs manager. “Charging you for their disorganization doesn’t seem reasonable to me.”
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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Also featured in the Detroit Free Press and on www.freep.com.