County board uses FOIA requests to obtain budget information

By: Jeremy Selweski | Macomb Township Chronicle | Published September 3, 2013

MACOMB COUNTY — To get their hands on detailed financial information that they said they had been denied by County Executive Mark Hackel’s office, members of the Board of Commissioners submitted an extensive Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request seeking documents related to the county’s 2014 budget.

This request was highly unusual and — according to Commissioner Fred Miller, D-Mount Clemens, chair of the board’s Finance Committee — totally unacceptable.

“This is just outrageous that one branch of government has to FOIA another branch of government for information that every Macomb County employee already has access to,” he said. “After being stonewalled repeatedly by the Executive Office, the board had to resort to the same tool that ordinary citizens would use.”

A timeline provided by the board states that the FOIA request was originally submitted on July 26. Because of the size of the request, the Executive Office initially told the board that there would be a copying fee of $300, but then waived that fee after some board members called and complained. The Executive Office also requested a 10-day deadline extension, which the board granted.

However, according to the board, none of the requested information was received by the Aug. 19 deadline. Two days later, most of the budget documents were sent via email, but the board contended that 13 of the 69 pieces of information that it had asked for were never received.

“I will concede that this is a lot of information,” Miller said, “but one of the central purposes of the Board of Commissioners is to make sure that citizens have all the information they deserve about the county budget. Our role is to be the eyes and ears of the public in Macomb County government.”

Still, Assistant Executive Al Lorenzo was confused as to why the board felt the need to submit a FOIA to get the budget information that it was seeking. He also believes that Miller’s characterization of the request as “a lot of information” is a massive understatement.

“The board was asking for everything under the sun — this was a huge, sweeping request for information,” Lorenzo said. “If you printed out all of those documents, they would amount to a stack of papers about 6 to 8 inches high. And this was far from the board’s first request for information. Throughout the budget process, they have been given literally thousands of documents and answers to literally hundreds of questions.”

Lorenzo apologized for the Executive Office’s tardiness in sending the requested information to the board, noting that it took a very long time to put it all together. However, he denied the board’s assertion that it did not receive all of the documents included in the FOIA.

“I was told that some of the things they said were missing were actually in there, but maybe they just couldn’t find them within that giant mountain of documents,” Lorenzo said. “At this point, I don’t think there is a single document that exists about the county budget that the board hasn’t seen. And yet, there will always be the claim that they’re not getting enough information from our office.”

This debate between Macomb County’s legislative and executive branches is nothing new. On June 13, the Board of Commissioners approved a pair of new ordinances intended to provide greater transparency within the county budget — a move that Hackel labeled as a politically motivated power grab.

The first ordinance requires that a full personnel breakdown — including employee salaries, fringe benefits, overtime pay, pension contributions and more — for each county department be added to the county budget, since personnel costs make up the largest portion of its annual expenditures. It also calls for all capital improvement projects totaling more than $250,000 to be listed in greater detail, as well as the inclusion of any fixed costs paid for by the county and any grant funding that it receives.

Meanwhile, the second ordinance outlines similar expectations for the content of the quarterly financial reports that are presented to the Board of Commissioners by Hackel’s office. It also mandates the addition of details related to changes in personnel, a list of line-item transfers, and comparisons of current revenues and expenditures with those from previous quarters and years, among other information.

Hackel abruptly vetoed both ordinances, saying that he would not abide by them because they were a blatant attempt by the board to assert powers that it had not been granted by the Macomb County charter. At its next meeting, the board voted unanimously to override Hackel’s vetoes. However, representatives from the Executive Office did not follow the guidelines of these ordinances when they presented their 2014 budget proposal to the board on July 1.

According to Miller, “This is very typical of Hackel’s perspective that he is the sole arbiter of everything in Macomb County, and other branches of government have no authority. His philosophy is that the board’s job is just to rubber stamp everything he gives us and provide little to no oversight.”

Miller pointed out that this year will mark the first time that the Board of Commissioners will adopt a combined budget by Sept. 30. In previous years, the board has always passed its special revenue funds in September and its general fund in December. The proposed 2014 budget that Hackel’s office submitted to the board totaled about $631 million.

Lorenzo remained adamant that, as the budget process has gone along, the Executive Office has provided the board with every piece of financial information at its disposal.

“We’re as transparent as we can possibly be,” he said. “This office has not received a single complaint from a Macomb County resident about a lack of transparency within the budget. The only source of complaints about the Executive Office is coming from one source, and that’s the Board of Commissioners.”

Miller acknowledged that the two branches of government have not been communicating well with each other and that county residents should be “outraged” by that lack of communication. Still, despite all the acrimony between Hackel’s office and the board over a myriad of ongoing issues, Miller said he believes that things are moving in the right direction.

“People deserve to have collaboration in their county government,” Miller said. “I actually feel like we’re making progress, slowly but surely. I think things will be better a year from now, and hopefully by the time I’m no longer in office, they’ll be running like clockwork.”