Aretha Franklin
Freedom of Information Laws give the press and public the right to access government documents. We know that Detroit’s Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was under FBI surveillance because of FOIA laws. The photo is a 1992 image of Franklin at the Democratic National Nominating Convention in New York City. (Mark Reinstein / Shutterstock.com)

Detroit, 

Hello, Detroit!

It’s your friend Malachi, hoping this finds you well. This was my first year with BridgeDetroit and only my second year as a resident of the city. I previously spent six years reporting on all kinds of issues across the state. I came to the Motor City seeking to lay down some roots and make more authentic connections with my community. It’s been a process of discovery and understanding for me, and I can’t tell you how much I appreciate Detroiters for letting me into their world and trusting me with their stories. 

In a lot of ways, my job is best described as an ongoing pursuit of useful information. Each day, I’m chipping away to find the truth and doing a fair bit of stumbling around in the dark. Much like a certain cyborg detective (no, not Robocop) I prefer to keep an empty stomach until the hard part of the day is done. Now that the year is nearly over, I’m getting organized to be even more productive in 2023.

BridgeDetroit’s editorial team takes a much deserved rest during this time of year. In addition to our regular news coverage, we’ve taken time to reflect on our accomplishments in 2022 and to share some of our priorities for 2023. Our editors and reporters love serving the citizens in the City of Detroit. We thank you for reading and your ongoing support of our nonprofit newsroom.

That includes cleaning up files I use to track my reporting. For example, I have over 200 pages of digital notes for stories I was able to publish this year and reports I am planning to let you read in 2023. I’m also looking over my requests for public records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to be smarter about how I gather documents. After all, it’s easy to work hard but hard to work smart, as my father would remind me. 

Did you hear about how Detroit’s Queen of Soul Aretha Franklin was under close surveillance by the FBI? We know that because of FOIA. 

FOIA is a beautiful law – so much as such a thing exists – that gives everyone the right to access government documents. It’s essential for the smart work we do here at BridgeDetroit, but I want to emphasize that anyone can use FOIA to answer questions they have about how their government works. In fact, it’s your right to do so. The way I see it, FOIA just helps the public get ahold of documents they already own. Sometimes I yell into my computer monitor like that old JG Wentworth commercial – “It’s my info, and I need it now!”

Ever wonder how much Detroit paid out in legal settlements last year? FOIA has the answer. 

What about how much City Council employees earn? You know we got that, too.

BridgeDetroit reporter Malachi Barrett

I filed 29 requests from May to December of this year to a variety of public entities. Only 10 of my requests were approved as I write this in late December. That’s not a great rate of success, which is why I’m trying to get smarter about how I use FOIA. 

Sometimes I didn’t get what I wanted because the records that I asked for didn’t exist – like when I tried to get a list of each time the state Department of Natural Resources closed Belle Isle to vehicle traffic. 

Other times, I was told the information exists, but because agencies don’t have to compile new records, I have to dig around and find them myself – like when I asked the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department what the average Detroiter owes in past due fees. 

We also ran up against costly fees, like when I was charged more than $700 to acquire forensic reports created by ShotSpotter, a controversial company that tracks gunshots for the Detroit Police Department. (We didn’t pay, and I’m rethinking how to get this information in 2023).

More often than not, I was left waiting to learn whether my request would be answered at all. Public bodies have five business days to respond to a FOIA request and can ask for an additional 10 business days if more time is needed. They often take much longer. 

One of the first FOIA requests I filed this year was for a list of Mayor Mike Duggan’s appointees and how much they’re paid. The city asked for more time, but that deadline came and went. Three months later, I reached back out and was told the request was being processed. That was in October.

Sometimes I get ghosted. In June, the City Council was debating whether to give ShotSpotter a more lucrative contract. I was seeking accuracy reports which would help us understand if ShotSpotter was meeting the standards of its multi-million dollar contract. Six months later, I haven’t received the records, or clarity on if they exist. 

The city hasn’t said ‘no’ to those requests, but it hasn’t said ‘yes’ either. While you ponder that, also consider what other questions BridgeDetroit could be trying to answer through FOIA. 

If you come up with anything interesting, let me know at mbarrett@bridgedetroit.com. I’m planning to write a comprehensive guide to using the law sometime next year. Until then, take care of yourself and stay safe. Can’t wait to see you again soon. 

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