ST. JOSEPH COUNTY, MI — Citing Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s “stay home, stay safe” order, the Branch-Hillsdale-St. Joseph Community Health Agency announced Thursday it was suspending the five-day required response time for Freedom of Information Act requests until April 14.
A special notice posted on the agency’s website stated, in part, that “since they are not necessary to sustain or protect life, or to supporting those businesses and operations that are necessary to sustain or protect life” the processing of, and responding to, FOIA requests would be suspended from March 24 through April 13.
“For purposes of counting response times for any FOIA requests received during this time, or FOIA requests for which a response is due beginning at 12:01 a.m. on or after March 24, 2020, through April 14, 2020 at 12:01 am, time is suspended during the effective dates of EO (Executive Order) 2020-21,” the notice reads.
Rebecca Burns, health officer for the agency, said the agency is overwhelmed with work related to the pandemic. The decision to temporarily stop processing FOIA requests was triggered by a records request that had nothing to do with COVID-19, Burns said.
“There was a request for information — a very large and time-consuming request — that we just don’t have the capacity to fill right now, that was completely unrelated to COVID-19,” she said. “Based on the other work the agency is doing to respond to COVID-19, we requested guidance from our counsel and that’s the advice that we were given.”
But the agency’s decision does not comply with the governor’s executive order, said Jennifer Dukarski, deputy general counsel with the Michigan Press Association.
“This is inconsistent with the governor’s executive orders which have said that transparency and accountability must remain and have shown that communication is an essential function,” Dukarski said. “This is no time for a government to block transparency and accountability. And this is particularly true of a health department, who appears to be shutting down access to information of vital importance to its public.
“Shutting down the FOIA process, although it may shut down requests for information that does not relate to COVID-19, it also forestalls any chance to ask questions about COVID-19 or other important health concerns.”
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act requires public bodies to provide copies of public records, with limited exemptions, when requested. The law requires public bodies to respond to any request within five business days, and also allows for a 10-day extension.
Burns said the agency will continue to send out daily press releases about the COVID-19 outbreak, and inform the public of the number of positive cases in the three counties it serves.
“I’m not sure what additional information you would want about (COVID-19) as we can’t tell you who our cases are,” she said.
In the case of residents who test positive for the virus, the agency will continue to follow up with anyone who may have been exposed and work with those individuals to ensure they are staying home, following guidance from the agency and to see whether they are exhibiting any symptoms of COVID-19, Burns said.
To date, Branch and St. Joseph counties both have reported zero cases as of March 26, while Hillsdale has reported six cases.
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