Guest Editorial: It is time for the Michigan Senate to let the sunshine in and expand FOIA

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by Jane Briggs-Bunting

Note: National Sunshine Week was March 15-21.

Open government advocates have watched for years as the Michigan Senate has repeatedly held up any action on a series of House bills known as the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA). However, it now looks like the Senate finally is ready to act to expand the state’s Freedom of Information (FOIA) laws to cover the governor, lieutenant governor and legislators.

Just last week, a package of bills mirroring the LORA bills was introduced by Sens. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), and Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan), who began working on the issue when they were in the House. If passed, they would give Michigan citizens the right to request and obtain public records from the governor, lieutenant governor and legislators, who currently aren’t subject to FOIA. Right now, those activities are “none of our business.”

This is an encouraging step and a change from the past three years when then-Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-Grand Haven, blocked the House-passed bills from even being discussed in committee. Current Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has a better open government record. In fact, when he was in the House in 2013-14, he introduced and helped shepherd through FOIA changes to deal with the high cost to obtain some public records. For his efforts to shepherd those changes into law in 2015, he was honored with the Sunshine Award by the Michigan Press Association.

City councils, village, township and school boards, police and fire departments and county governments are all required under FOIA to provide public records — except in a limited number of exemptions — to people who request them. But this isn’t required of Michigan’s state elected officials.

 That makes Michigan the only state in the country to statutorily exempt the governor and lieutenant governor from a state’s FOIA requirements. In 1986, then-Attorney General Frank Kelley issued an opinion, subsequently reconfirmed in 2018, that Michigan’s legislators also were exempt, leaving citizens essentially blind as to what their governor, lieutenant governor and lawmakers do out of the public eye.

That needs to change. Fortunately, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer agrees. In her first State of the State last year she said, “Let’s expand FOIA to my office and to the Legislature. It’s time to ensure that the sun shines equally on every branch of state government.” She’s right!

It now looks as though Shirkey and his Senate colleagues will finally act to fix Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act by passing the new package of bills introduced by Sens. Moss and McBroom. If not amended too drastically, the bills should have an easy time passing the House before going to Gov. Whitmer for her signature. 

Moss and McBroom introduced their bills in time for National Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort that took place from March 15-21 this year. Led by the American Society of News Editors and the National Freedom of In-

formation Coalition, Sunshine Week is intended to educate the public about the vital importance of openness and transparency in government at all levels and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.

But FOIA isn’t the only law that needs work. Other weaknesses in Michigan’s government accountability laws should be addressed as well. Our state lacks a law requiring its elected public officials to disclose their personal finances and potential conflicts of interest. That’s important to know when they’re voting on legislation where they may receive a benefit.

In an era when the internet has made transparency and accountability both easier and cheaper, Michigan’ s elected state leaders should be held accountable to the citizens they serve. Let’s get moving on adding the governor, lieutenant governor and legislators to the state’s Freedom of Information Act!

An attorney and journalist, Jane Briggs-Bunting is a former board member and founding president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG), a tax exempt, Michigan nonprofit corporation founded to promote and protect transparency and accountability in government at the local, state and federal levels. For more information, visit www.miopengov.org.  Briggs-Bunting is the first recipient of the Jane Briggs-Bunting Transparency in Government Award, named after her and presented by the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG). Originally the award was scheduled to be given at the Michigan Press Association annual conference, but that was canceled due to the Coronavirus crisis.



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