GTC Board Confirms FOIA Name Removal Request | Local News
TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County Council this week denied an appeal from a resident seeking the identity of a woman who created a spreadsheet with the email addresses of every county clerk in the country.
The spreadsheet was generated by a member of the public and emailed to the county administrator’s office. It was used to send copies of a controversial resolution supporting vaccine awareness and medical autonomy to county commissioners or their counterparts in all 50 states. The resolution was passed by the board of directors in August.
Ted Wendling, who in December filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the document, received a copy of the spreadsheet, but the woman’s name and email address were redacted.
Board attorney Kit Tholen said the woman’s name was withheld because releasing it would be an invasion of her privacy. She had also asked that he not be released.
Wendling appealed Tholen’s ruling, writing that Michigan law does not allow people who correspond with a public agency to protect their identity because they want to maintain their anonymity.
This week, an email from the woman with her name and information redacted was included in the council package. She asked that her name be withheld “…because I am concerned that these individuals may seek to harm or harass me and my children,” she wrote.
His email also stated that the spreadsheet was his “intellectual property” and should not be disclosed. “This list has significant value and if you distribute it without my approval, you may be held liable for damages,” the woman wrote.
But Wendling said the public has an interest in knowing whether the woman has been paid for her work, is a lobbyist, a county contractor or is seeking work with the county. He wrote in his appeal that his request is not an unwarranted invasion of privacy under Michigan law.
The council voted 4-3 to uphold Tholen’s refusal, with commissioners Bryce Hundley, Darryl V. Morris and Betsy Coffia voting against.
Before the vote, Tholen told the commissioners that the decision whether or not to provide the redacted information was purely discretionary, that there was no clear legal answer. One thing that made this circumstance different was that the person was concerned about their family’s safety and emotions were running high about vaccinations and warrants, Tholen said.
“That person is more involved in the issue, and they would understand better than me if they could be threatened or harassed,” Tholen said.
Board chairman Rob Hentschel said people were being harassed for participating in politics and all commissioners had received threatening communications.
“These are tough times, more than I’ve ever seen,” Hentschel said. “People cross that line of debating a political opinion and get very personal.”
Commissioner Betsy Coffia said she’s concerned the county is setting a precedent for people to ask to have their information withheld in future FOIA requests.
In a previous FOIA request, Wendling received copies of dozens of emails and other board correspondence from people supporting and opposing the vaccine resolution that included all names and personal information. His own personal information was also on the board’s file for Wednesday’s regular meeting.
Wendling said he hasn’t decided what his next steps will be.
“I am frustrated with the actions of the commission,” he said.
The resolution in question prohibits the county from mandating COVID-19 vaccines and testing on employees and required the Grand Traverse County Health Department to change its messaging regarding the vaccine. The health department was also prohibited from encouraging private employers in the county to establish similar mandates.
Wendling submitted a FOIA request in September seeking the cost of sending the resolution to more than 3,000 commissioners across the country, saying it is not a legitimate use of the money taxpayers.
His request returned more than 1,300 documents unrelated to the resolution, but excluded a dozen related emails. Wendling appealed this decision, which was also upheld by the board.