Demo legal bills saga highlights Detroit's transparency problem

May 31, 2019, 8:31 AM by  Violet Ikonomova


If this were about the money, we'd open with something like this: "Detroit could have demolished dozens of houses with the amount of money it's spent defending itself amid a federal probe of its demolition program."

But this isn't about the money, this is about the lack of transparency.

Reporters, including this one, have tried and failed to learn the total legal expense for the yearslong probe, as the Land Bank has apparently leaned on nuances in FOIA requests to avoid providng a complete picture.

But the Free Press pressed on. It took them nearly a year, multiple requests, $2,000, a formal appeal, and they still weren't given the full story in a timely manner.

The Freep's Katrease Stafford reports:

The Free Press spent more than 10 months pursuing the invoices — filing a handful of open records requests and encountering delays from the Land Bank. The agency at one point charged more than $4,000 to produce the public documents, before reducing the price after delays in providing the records.

The Free Press confirmed that a portion of the legal expenses were paid for using city dollars, despite officials at one point in 2016, saying that no city money would be allocated for legal bills connected to the probe. The exact amount of city dollars used is unclear because Land Bank and Detroit officials did not directly answer a question seeking clarification on how the expenses were covered.

In case you didn't connect the dots there: city money is Detroiters' money. (And really, if you want to get technical about it, Land Bank money is sort of Detroiters' money too, because the houses from which the agency derives revenue once belonged to Detroiters who in many cases lost them due to government ineptitude.)

Your money = your right to know.

And yet, the Land Bank tried to charge the Freep $4,000 for the total billings — rather than simply voluntarily disclose a dollar amount.

The Freep appealed with this statement:

"The concept behind the FOIA is accountability," Free Press attorney Herschel Fink wrote in the newspaper's Aug. 30 appeal. "The law’s purpose is to make government, and the conduct and actions of its officials and employees, accountable through transparency."

Still, it wound up having to pay more than $2,000 for the information in late May.

The Land Bank, city, and Detroit Building Authority spent a total of $500,000 on the legal bills, the Free Press reports. Miller Canfield and D.C.-based WilmerHale got the work.

We should note that typically, Detroit City Council has to approve contracts of this size, which would have made the information easier to obtain. But the Land Bank is an authority, meaning it enjoys weaker reporting requirements than city government departments.

Read more:  Detroit Free Press

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