Should Building Records for Family Homes Be Public Records?

In Michigan, State Representative Amanda Price has proposed an amendment to the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that will allow building permit records and information related to single and two family homes to be exempt from the FOIA.

The proposed amendment reads, “A public body shall exempt from disclosure records or information related to environmental, building, or other permits for the construction of a specific single-family or two-family dwelling.”

The amendment arises from a debate surrounding a home being built “up the sand dune” from the historic Big Red lighthouse. Township Manager Jerry Felix withheld information regarding the building’s construction despite FOIA requests from the media. Based on legal advice, the township board later reversed that decision and the documents will be made public (with sensitive information redacted).

State Rep. Price felt that “The simple fact is I think people have a right to an expectation of privacy, no matter who folks are… I’m probably being a little paranoid, but if people are finding the exact locations of rooms in your house, it opens you up to large concerns.”

However, the Michigan Press Association’s public affairs manager, Lisa McGraw, points out that “Citizens have a right to know what’s going on in their cities, townships, states, whatever.” This right includes keeping an eye on changes being made to their neighborhood and the knowledge that houses are being built to code.  McGraw also points to the larger implications of further limiting the FOIA, saying, “Any time there’s a new exemption put in — there’s already a lot — it just erodes a taxpayer’s right to know what’s going on in his community, to know where their tax dollars are being spent.”

This story raises questions regarding where the line should be drawn between protecting citizen’s privacy and safety and ensuring that information that is beneficial to the public is kept public. What is your opinion?