MARCH 1995

Table of Contents

  1. M-LINK List Server Established
  2. Tax Form Blues
  3. If Passed, HB4370 Promises Electronic Access to Michigan Legislature
  4. Engler Revives Government TV
  5. Secchia Commission Report Released
  6. Access to Government Records Update
  7. How to Get Public Records
  8. U.S. District Court Goes Online

(1) M-LINK List Server Established

The University of Michigan Library's M-Link Project is now offering a new discussion list, MICHLIB-L, for Michigan libraries and librarians. Topics of discussion can include reference, circulation, media, building, the Internet, bibliographic instruction, youth and children's programs, colleciton development, research, staffing, and whatever relates to libraries in our state.

To subscribe to MICHLIB-L, send an e-mail message to []. Leave the subject line blank. In the body of your message, type "SUBSCRIBE MICHLIB-L *". Substitute your complete e-mail address for *. Do not include the punctuation marks. If you still have questions, send an e-mail message to [].

(2) Tax Form Blues

Sooner or later, depository librarians have to cope with questions concerning tax forms, particularly during the tax season. The following letter, taken from the MICHLIB-L discussion list, relates the Ann Arbor Public Library's experiences and, in their case, a practical solution.

"Ok, troops, sit down. I am here to tell you there is life after tax forms.

At the Ann Arbor Public Library system, tax forms became a monster that ate our collective professional brain. I did a study the last year we distributed them and it turned out we spent almost $10,000 in staff time during tax season (December to May) dealing with tax forms--ordering, storing, replenishing supplies, filling requests, keeping the reproducibles in order, tracking down stolen reproducibles.

The more we did, the crankier the patrons got. We used to have basic forms. They wanted the weird ones. We got reproducible forms. They wanted out of state. We wore buttons, made signs, looked haggard. They demanded envelopes, stamps, staplers, help, and like Dave Barry, I'm not making this up), money for the copier.

It was ridiculous. We had University of Michigan students, accountants, tax preparers, non-residents who did not have a library card, could care less about getting a library card, never saw beyond the tax forms tables (two ten foot monstrosities that were horribly messy). We ordered extra back up sets of reproducible forms to always be able to provide exactly what people wanted. And still they were cranky.

On April 14 and 15 of the last year, we handled tax forms. We had to double our security staff, fer heaven's sake, because of the trouble at the copiers when we tried to close the building.

Don't forget what bpol stands for -- banks, post office, and library. What we found was that as word got out that the library did such a swell job, the post offices and banks started bailing out. The Secretary of State's local office only carried a smattering of state forms. The local IRS [Internal Revenue Service] office refuses to publish a phone line so taxpayers have to go down to their office, taking a chance on cataching them during their odd hours. The Secretary of State and IRS offices even had the audacity to send form-seekers to the library instead of dealing with them themselves. We had outrageous conversations with Lansing and the feds concerning getting enough instruction booklets (4 per 100 forms). You've all been there. You know from whence I speak.

I did a study and presented it to our department heads and adminstration. Our staff were nervous about dumping the program because we were coming up for a millage election later that year but we hesitently supported the recommendation to withdraw from the program because our regular service to card-carrying patrons was taking a beating. We presented the study to the library advisory committee. Their reaction was unequivacal, even knowing about the upcoming millage request. Their message was loud and clear. Dump the program.

We had a huge publicity campaign--pr releases, plenty of warning on our weekly radio spot, a letter of explanation from the director. We made big signs that not only said we were getting out of the tax form business, but published the address of the Secretary of State and local IRS offices, complete with hours. We included the 800 numbers for ordering forms and getting help.

Then a miracle happened. We got a call from a local mail/packaging business. They were happy to carry the tax forms -- federal and state, regular and reproducibles. We printed up thousands of flyers with their hours, address, phone, and supplies. We've been giving these out like candy.

And again, I am not making this up. The first year we had perhaps a dozen complaints and only a handful of those were even mildly unpleasant. Instead those seeking tax forms were pleased if not thrilled to be given the 'green sheet' with the alternative source. And our regular patrons, who were denied service during tax time because they couldn't break through the barriers of procrastinating desperadoes, were delighted to have year-round and uninterrupted service. How do I know this? Because that year, our millage request passed by the biggest margin ever.

I know that for many libraries, the burden is not nearly so gruesome. Why was it so bad in Ann Arbor? I don't know. Maybe we have more tax preparers per capita than other places. I know that some form-seekers evencame in and said their nearby local libraries sent them to us for forms that the smaller facilities didn't have space to store. A lot of it was university traffic. Maybe the post offices and banks in other communities are more cooperative.

If you find your stomach knotting in the morning, if you dread going to work, if you find yourself thinking that 'form' is just another four letter 'f' word, it's time to take another look at this service that has noting to do with librarianship.

End of speech."

Source: B Andersen, [], MICHLIB-L, January 23, 1995.

(3) If Passed, HB4370 Promises
Electronic Access to Michigan Legislature

The issue of electronic access to Michigan legislative actions and results seems to have taken a big step in the right direction. As many of you know, the only current electronic access to bills and other legislative information is provided for a fee via the Legislative Council's Questor system or through commercial firms such as Hannah, Gongwer, and MIRS. Several other states such as California, Minnesota, Texas, and New York have made it a matter of public policy and public funding to provide free access to the records of their legislative activity.

Representative Deborah Cherry (D Burton) has introduced HB 4370 which amends Act No. 268 of 1986 (MCL 4.1101 to 4.1901). Excerpts follow:

"The Council shall make the following information available to the public in electronic form:

The Legislative Calendar, scheduled committee meetings, matters pending on the floor of each house, a listing of the committees of each house and their members, the text of each bill introduced, a bill analysis if any, history and status of every bill, all voting information, the Michigan Compiled Laws, the State Constitution of 1963, and 'other information the Council considers necessary.'"

"The information described shall be made available to the public by way of the largest nonproprietary nonprofit cooperative public computer network". [Comment on the bill makes it clear that this is referring to the Internet.]

"The information shall be made available in 1 or more formats and by 1 or more means in order to provide the greatest feasible access to the general public in this state. Any person who accesses the information may access all or any part of the information."

"No fee or other charges may be imposed by the Council as a condition of accessing the information described in this section."

"This section does not alter or relinquish any copyright or other proprietary interest or entitlement of this state relating to any of the information made available pursuant to this section."

It seems to me that this bill is certainly worthy of support by all librarians and all others interested in citizen access to government information.

Source: Richard J. Hathaway, MLink Director, , MICHLIB-L, February 16, 1995.

(4) Michigan Government Television Project Resurrected

Governor John Engler's administration has quietly reconnected the cables for Michigan's Government Television project, a plan for a Michigan C-SPAN-type network. MGTV, the state-owned cable channel, would air gubernatorial events, state agency meetings, legislative sessions, and judiciary functions.

Although no start up date has been announced, John Kost, Michigan's chief information officer and project coordinator, thinks the channel can be on the air within six months. He is scheduled to meet with House and Senate Republicans and representatives from the Judiciary on February 7 to discuss details.

Engler first ordered it as a part of an educational telecommunications project back in 1993. Initial funding would have come from the $12.5 million customers overpaid for long distance service through Michigan Bell Telephone Co., known now as Ameritech Corporation. Continuing operational expenses have been estimated at about $1 million a year.

But Democrats have been opposed to the plan from the start. According to House Minority Leader Curtis Hertel, D-Detroit, government funding is illegal. Democrats would prefer to return the Ameritech money set aside for the project to the people who were overcharged.

House Speaker Paul Hillegonds, a Republican, also has stated that while he supports opening government to the public, he prefers private sector funding for MGTV.

Attorney General Frank Kelley has issued an opinion stating that long-distance overpayments cannot be spent without the Legislature's approval. But the adminstration has avoided the issue by asking Public Service Commission approval for Ameritech to pay directly for the channel's setup, rather than putting the money into state coffers. That's why Hertel is upset.

So upset that the Democrats are threatening legal action to block the channel. But the Democrats no longer control the House and Senate appropriations process.

Stay tuned for further developments.

Source: Lansing State Journal, February 5, 1995.

(5) Secchia Commission Report Released

The Secchia Commission on Total Quality Government will present its ideas on making the state more efficient and customer-friendly to Governor John Engler on December 20.

Engler hopes to use the report as a centerpiece of a second-term agenda to improve state services. If successful, the changes could mean things such as shorter lines at government agencies, extended service hours and a clearer path through the maze of bureaucracy.

The report will make 38 specific recommendations on issues ranging from Civil Service reform to improving respite care. Many of the reforms could be implemented directly by Engler; others would require legislation.

A few of the recommendations include:

  • A service academy that would provide ongoing training to state employees on how to better serve businesses and individuals.

  • A wetlands bank that would be created to break the gridlock that developers frequently complain of when seeking local government support for new projects.

  • An incentive system to reward outstanding civil servants and to accelerate their advancement.

  • A greater use of volunteers.

    In the course of its work, the Secchia Commission created seven task forces to focus on a wide range of government functions. It held more than 70 hearings across the state before coming up with its recommendations.

    For more information, consult the actual report entitled Toward A User-Friendly Government: the Secchia Commission Report (GvEx S43: 1 F76).

    The report is also available over the world wide web. Consult

    Source: Lansing State Journal, December 18, 1994, pp.1A, 4A; revised March 10, 1996.

    (6) Access to Government Records Update

    Access to government records is a right guaranteed by federal and state law. However, the cost of obtaining copies of these records can have a chilling effect on most citizens.

    In Warren and other cities, officials arbitrarily set fees for copies sought under the Freedom of Information Act. In many cases, the fees are not only excessive, but also illegal, say several experts on the Freedom of Information Act.

    Of 10 agencies surveyed in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties by the Detroit Free Press, most charged 50 cents to $1 per page.

    Detroit media attorney Herschel Fink contends copying costs should be only 3 cents a page; anything over 10 cents a page is excessive and illegal.

    According to Fink, state law specifically notes that government agencies can only charge the "incremental" or actual cost of copying. "The law doesn't permit government to make the Freedom of Information Act a profit center. That would defeat the whole purpose of making government records accessible to the public."

    According to Mark Grebner, Ingham County Commissioner and self- styled FOIA expert, case law makes any flat fee for copies illegal in Michigan. Grebner's argument is based on Tallman vs. Cheboygan Area Schools, a dispute that erupted when a mother asked for photocopies of the materials in her son's school files. The school wanted to assess her a $1 a page. In its decision, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that "a public body is not at liberty to simply choose how much it will charge for records." According to Grebner, that means you can never charge a flat per page have to figure actual costs for each individual request."

    However, in reality, most people simple pay the costs to get the material desired; lawyers are expensive.

    (7) Using the Freedom of Information Act to Get Public Records

  • Requests should be submitted in writing, citing either the Federal Freedom of Information Act (5 USC 552) or the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (P.A. 442 of 1976, as amended).

  • Agencies have five business days to respond to requests under the Michigan FOIA and 10 days under federal.

  • You are entitled to inspect and make your own copies.

  • If the agency is making copies, it may charge only actual costs. Labor costs can't exceed the hourly rate of the lowest-paid employee.

  • Agencies may waive any charges if disclosure benefits the general public.

  • If any portions of a document are exempt from release -- such as information of a personal nature -- the remainder of the document must be segregated and disclosed.

    If Your Request is Denied:

  • The agency must cite specific reasons for the denial. The agency must also include information on your right to appeal and your legal remedies.

  • If you intend to file a lawsuit to compel disclosure, you must provide the agency written notice.

  • If you win a legal action to compel disclosure, you are entitled to be reimbursed for reasonable attorney fees and the agency is subject to a $500 fine.

    Source: Detroit Free Press, December 6, 1994, pp. 1B, 6B.

    (8) U.S. District Court Goes Online

    Starting January 3, 1995, computer owners will be able to access the federal court docket for civil and criminal cases of the U.S. District Court in Detroit. The information on civil cases will go back to 1988 and on criminal ones to 1978.

    Under the program, the public will have access to such information as motions filed, judges' rulings and the names of lawyers, plaintiffs, and defendents.

    The service will be available 23 hours a day, seven days a week. It will cost $1 a minute. An account and password can be obtained by calling (800) 676-6856 or writing to PACER Service Center, P. O. Box 780549, San Antonio, TX 78278-0549.

    Source: Detroit News, January 1, 1995, p.6C.

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