Reporter wins right to view city’s electronic tax records
MICHIGAN–The city of Detroit must give Detroit News reporter David Farrell a computer tape that links a list of taxpayers who pay property taxes in Detroit to the properties on which they are taxed, the Michigan Court of Appeals in Detroit ruled in mid-February.
The court held that Farrell does not have to settle for the city’s offer to give him a computer print-out rather than an electronic version.
Reversing a trial court decision, the three-judge panel rejected the city’s argument that, because it uses a hard copy of its tax assessment rolls instead of a tape, information in the backup tapes on its computer did not constitute a “record” subject to the disclosure requirements of the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The city also had argued that producing a tape of the information Farrell requested would constitute the creation of a new record. The city said the Michigan open records law does not require agencies to “create” records in response to requests.
But the appeals panel said the tape is a “public record” and must be provided.
The panel noted that a federal District Court in Washington, D.C. interpreting the federal FOI Act had ruled in 1984 that a requester could not choose the format for having information provided. But the panel said the federal law requires “information” to be available while the Michigan law requires public “records” to be open. Electronic records are specifically open under the state’s FOI Act, it said.
Farrell first requested electronic copies of the records in 1990 to be able to sort the information on his own. The city initially said it did not have the information, then offered to give Farrell the print-outs. (Farrell v. City of Detroit; Media Counsel: Jim Stewart, Detroit.)