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 firstname.lastname@example.org or log-in to our website and leave a comment below.