Herald Co. v. City of Bay City

Decision Date27 July 2000
Docket NumberDocket No. 111709, Calendar No. 4.
Citation614 N.W.2d 873,463 Mich. 111
PartiesThe HERALD COMPANY, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. CITY OF BAY CITY, et al, Defendants-Appellants.
CourtMichigan Supreme Court

Braun, Kendrick, Finkbeiner, P.L.C. (by Scott C. Strattard), Saginaw, for plaintiff-appellee.

Allsopp, Kolka & Wackerly, P.C. (by Mark A. Kolka), Bay City, for defendants-appellants.

Law Offices of Dawn Phillips-Hertz (by Dawn Phillips-Hertz and Lisa Rycus Mikalonis), for Michigan Press Association and The Associated Press, Troy; and Kasiborski, Ronayne & Flaska, P.C. (by John J. Ronayne, III), for The Michigan Association of Broadcasters.

Miller, Canfield, Paddock & Stone, P.L.C. (by Don M. Schmidt), Kalamazoo, for Michigan Municipal League Legal Defense Fund.

Sommers, Schwartz, Silver & Schwartz, P.C. (by Patrick Burkett and C.F. Boyle, Jr.), Southfield, for Public Corporation Law Section/State Bar of Michigan.

Bauckham, Sparks, Rolfe, Lohrstorfer & Thall, P.C. (by John H. Bauckham), Kalamazoo, for Michigan Townships Association.



We granted leave in this case to address the application of the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Michigan Open Meetings Act (OMA) in the context of the municipal hiring process. We conclude that Bay City violated the FOIA when it refused to disclose public records concerning final candidates for the position of Bay City Fire Chief, because the requested records were not within any exemption under the FOIA. We additionally conclude that the city manager in this case was neither part of, nor acting as, a "public body" within the contemplation of the OMA, and thus was not subject to its requirements. Accordingly, we affirm in part and reverse in part the decision of the Court of Appeals and remand this matter to the trial court for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Facts and Procedural Background

Plaintiff challenges the process used by defendant Bay City to select a new fire chief. The relevant facts are not in dispute.

In February 1996, the Bay City Fire Chief retired. The Bay City Charter prescribes that a new fire chief must be appointed by the Bay City Commission on the recommendation of the city manager. The city manager at that time, defendant Bruce McCandless, formed a committee to assist him in making his recommendation. The purpose of the committee was to aid McCandless in establishing hiring criteria, soliciting and screening applicants, and interviewing applicants, and to advise him on the selection of the most qualified candidate. The committee consisted of defendants Howard Asch, Thomas Rhine, Boyd Boettger, Bruce Wagner and Jacob Hutter.1

The five-member committee received thirty-four applications and recommended that nine of those applicants be considered for the fire chief position. Two of the nine recommended candidates withdrew their applications. The remaining seven applicants were interviewed by the committee, and the committee concluded that three of these candidates deserved further consideration. McCandless agreed with the committee's recommendation and personally interviewed the final three candidates. All of the committee's meetings and the interviews were conducted in private.

On May 6, 1996, before McCandless made a recommendation to the city commission, the editor of The Bay City Times2 filed a Freedom of Information Act request for "the names, current job titles, cities of residence and age of the seven final candidates for the job of Bay City fire chief...." In a letter dated May 13, 1996, the city denied plaintiff's request.

On May 16, 1996, McCandless sent a letter to the city commission recommending one candidate, Gary Mueller, for the fire chief position. At an open meeting on June 3, 1996, the city commission deliberated and voted to appoint Gary Mueller as the Bay City Fire Chief.

After the appointment, plaintiff filed suit alleging violations of the FOIA and the OMA. Plaintiff argued that the FOIA required the city to comply with plaintiff's request for information about the candidates who were interviewed, and that the OMA required McCandless and his committee to conduct interviews in open meetings.

The trial court eventually granted summary disposition for defendants on both the FOIA and OMA claims. The court held that plaintiff's FOIA request was defective and, alternatively, that the requested information was exempt from disclosure. As to the OMA, the trial court concluded that McCandless and his committee were not subject to its provisions, and thus that there was no violation. Plaintiff appealed the grant of summary disposition, and the Court of Appeals reversed on both counts.3 We granted defendants' application for leave to appeal.4

II. Standard of Review

The trial court granted summary disposition for defendants on the basis of its interpretation of the Freedom of Information Act, M.C.L. § 15.231 et seq.; MSA 4.1801(1) et seq., and the Open Meetings Act, M.C.L. § 15.261 et seq.; MSA 4.1800(11) et seq. This Court reviews the grant or denial of summary disposition de novo. Maiden v. Rozwood, 461 Mich. 109, 118, 597 N.W.2d 817 (1999). Similarly, we review questions of statutory construction de novo as a question of law. Donajkowski v. Alpena Power Co., 460 Mich. 243, 248, 596 N.W.2d 574 (1999); Mager v. Dep't of State Police, 460 Mich. 134, 143, n. 14, 595 N.W.2d 142 (1999). Because our judicial role precludes imposing different policy choices than those selected by the Legislature, our obligation is, by examining the statutory language, to discern the legislative intent that may reasonably be inferred from the words expressed in the statute. People v. McIntire, 461 Mich. 147, 152-153, 599 N.W.2d 102 (1999). If the language of a statute is clear and unambiguous, the plain meaning of the statute reflects the legislative intent and judicial construction is not permitted. Tryc v. Michigan Veterans' Facility, 451 Mich. 129, 135, 545 N.W.2d 642 (1996). We must give the words of a statute their plain and ordinary meaning. MCL 8.3a; MSA 2.212(1); Turner v. Auto Club Ins. Ass'n, 448 Mich. 22, 27, 528 N.W.2d 681 (1995).

III. Freedom of Information Act Claim
A. Introduction

Subsection 1(2) of the FOIA declares that

[i]t is the public policy of this state that all persons ... are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees, consistent with this act. The people shall be informed so that they may fully participate in the democratic process. [MCL 15.231(2); MSA 4.1801(1)(2) (emphasis added).]

Consistent with this broadly declared legislative policy, the FOIA's specific provisions generally require the full disclosure of public records in the possession of a public body:5

(1) Upon an oral or written request which describes the public record sufficiently to enable the public body to find the public record, a person has a right to inspect, copy, or receive copies of a public record of a public body....
(2) A public body shall furnish a requesting person a reasonable opportunity for inspection and examination of its public records, and shall furnish reasonable facilities for making memoranda or abstracts from its public records during the usual business hours....
(3) This act does not require a public body to make a compilation, summary, or report of information....
(4) This act does not require a public body to create a new public record, except as required in sections 5 and 11, and to the extent required by this act for the furnishing of copies, or edited copies pursuant to section 14(1), of an already existing public record. [MCL 15.233; MSA 4.1801(3).]

The FOIA provides, in § 13, several exemptions which, if applicable, permit a public body to deny a request for disclosure of public records.6 On its express terms, the FOIA is a prodisclosure statute, and the exemptions stated in § 13 are narrowly construed. Mager, supra at 143, 595 N.W.2d 142; Bradley v. Saranac Community Schools Bd. of Ed., 455 Mich. 285, 293, 565 N.W.2d 650 (1997); Swickard v. Wayne Co. Medical Examiner, 438 Mich. 536, 544, 475 N.W.2d 304 (1991). The burden of proof rests on the party asserting the exemption. Bradley, supra at 293, 565 N.W.2d 650; Swickard, supra at 544, 475 N.W.2d 304.

At issue in the instant case is the following FOIA exemption:

A public body may exempt from disclosure as a public record under this act:
(a) Information of a personal nature where the public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy. [MCL 15.243(1); MSA 4.1801(13)(1).]

The trial court concluded that plaintiff's FOIA request was defective because it requested information rather than documents, and, alternatively, that the information requested was exempt from disclosure as "[i]nformation of a personal nature where the public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual's privacy." The Court of Appeals disagreed on both counts, and reversed the grant of summary disposition for defendants. We conclude that the requested records were not exempt from disclosure, and therefore affirm the holding of the Court of Appeals.

B. Propriety of Plaintiff's Request

The FOIA does not establish detailed requirements for a valid request. Instead, it merely requires that a request "describe[ ] the public record sufficiently to enable the public body to find the public record." MCL 15.233(1); MSA 4.1801(3)(1). Defendants argue that plaintiff's request failed to meet this basic requirement. We disagree.

In this case, plaintiff requested "the names, current job titles, cities of residence and age of the seven final candidates for the job of Bay City fire chief." The city admits that this description was sufficient to allow it to find documents containing the information, but argues that...

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