Public records are everyone’s, and rightfully so

As we’re sure most of our readers are aware, April was a sad month for many local families as their loved ones passed away.
May 9, 2014

 

Page 2 of the Tribune filled with double the number of obituaries we normally see, and people in the community started to question why so many were dying in such a short span of time.

Clearly this was a trend that deserved further investigation. 

So, the Tribune made a simple request of a county clerk at the Fillmore Complex — When could we come over to view the death certificates of these local people? Yes, we’d like to see the cause of death and the deceased person’s age and hometown.

No? What do you mean, no?

This is the go-to answer, it seems, for most public officials these days. Instead of assisting us — as members of the public — in gaining access to public records, they seek to deny our very right to them.

The Trib then took the next step that every good newspaper should take — we called our Michigan Press Association’s attorney hotline. Not once, but twice — after subsequent days of being denied access by the county to this basic public record.

Both attorneys we reached — attorneys who are experts in public record law — were shocked that Ottawa County blatantly denied an absolutely above-board, legitimate public records request. Those records, they assured us, are in essence the property of the public and should be accessible.

When we told them about the clerk’s concern that by releasing the records it would open up the deceased to fraud, the attorneys chuckled. Why? One can gleam more information from an obituary than they can from the redacted death certificate.

And, besides, it’s not up to a clerk to tell a newspaper what they can and cannot print. The law is clear on that.

A full five business days, and more than a dozen calls and visits, went by after we initially requested the documents. Finally, we were able to get the public documents and paid a hefty sum for them.

What we found from those records was not groundbreaking or earth-shattering, as there appeared to be no common cause of death. Those who died in April died of cancer and a smattering of other illnesses or natural causes. This wasn’t the start of an influenza epidemic. 

But, it could have been. And, had it been, we would have kept our readers informed thanks to this information.

If it were up to the Fillmore Complex staff, public records would never see the light of day in Ottawa County. Thus, the information readers would get on such an outbreak, if there were one, would be whatever message the county wants to be told, if they want it to be told. That’s a dangerous thing indeed.

What readers should know is that any member of the public has access to public records. Some things, such as Social Security numbers, might be redacted from the documents before you see them, and that’s fine.

John Doe should be able to walk into the correct county office and request to see a death certificate, property records, tax records, or any number of public documents. He should get them.

When a newspaper makes a similar request, it should get those records.

Why? Because these are the public’s records, not a clerk’s. The clerk and all public officials should seek ways to more effectively assist the public in attaining their records rather than try to figure out ways to say no.

Our Views reflects the majority opinion of the members of the Grand Haven Tribune editorial board: Kevin Hook, Cheryl Welch, Matt DeYoung, Alex Doty and Fred VandenBrand. What do you think? E-mail us a letter to the editor to news@grandhaventribune.com or log-in to our website and leave a comment below.

Comments

DKS523

Wow. All you would have had to do was look at the charity that they listed for memorial donations to go to, to know if they passed from Cancer. Those in their later years, natural causes. Do you need to search that much for a news story?

Boater

Personally, I don't think it's anybody's business how someone died. That is a personal thing and should fall under hipaa rules.

Creedance

I never thought of it that way. How they died regardless of the cause is medically related. Whether they are alive or dead, HIPAA should protect. If HIPAA dies with the person, than said person's entire medical record should be public record... that wouldn't make sense, would it?

Gwen66

I often applaud records not released to the media because I agree with Boater, it's no-one's business. BUT...as usual the Tribune is missing the real story. Daniel Krueger, the OCC makes up rules as he goes a long with no authority to back it up. If you don't know any better you stick your tail between your legs and leave. I've been to the OCC's office and the Courthouse on several occasions and have had to stand there and argue with staff telling me how things are done when I know they don't have the authority to make such decisions. When asked under what authority they have to make such rules and such they can never back it up. They tell me they will mail the rule to me with the authority to back it up. I say fine, do it my way until you can prove you are right. To this day I have never received anything from them. You know why don't you? Because they have been wrong every time! The Clerk thinks he is ruler, he is not, he is keeper of the records.

theQuin

Would the paper really have "kept our readers informed"? I think you have to pay to get an obituary published. Not all people can afford that, so not all info would be provided fairly. I also agree that the cause of death, age, etc. of deceased people is not the world's business. And, if we have to rely on the Tribune to let us know some 1920s-ish influenza epidemic is going to kill all of us, we are really in trouble!

nextdoor

If they're public records and you want to see them you shouldn't need to hire a lawyer. the clerk should do there job.the paper didn't publish any hurtful information.

davewali

My wife was one of those who passed away in April.
If you were so curious as to the cause of death, may I direct you to your OWN paper, April 24, 2014 page 2. Or don't you read your own paper?

If you were worried about some epidemic, perhaps a call to the local hospitals would have worked.

Lanivan

My sympathies on the loss of your wife, Davewali....

spanone

People--- pull your heads out of where their stuck( up your hind quarters). It's not the deaths it's about how people are not getting the public info when going to the county clerks office. If everything was ok in the county clerks office why did the county clerk Danial Kruger announce his retirement after the state attorney general started looking into the functions of that of in Ottawa county? What will the AG find? Maybe now the people will see how crooked the politics in Ottawa county are and how many elected officals shouldn't be in office>

 

Post a Comment

Log in to your account to post comments here and on other stories, galleries and polls. Share your thoughts and reply to comments posted by others. Don't have an account on GrandHavenTribune.com? Create a new account today to get started.