This month I am hoping readers of this column will take the time to help to bring some pressure on state lawmakers who now have the opportunity to improve transparency in state government with a set of bills introduced in the last couple of weeks.
So at the end of this column you will find the-mail addresses of local Michigan House and Senate members which allows you to prod area lawmakers to get behind this new effort.
Here's the basic details.
In 1976, Michigan first adopted legislation known as the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to codify how citizens – including the media – could request copies of government records in the state. The act laid out the procedures to follow and the exclusions of certain records that would not be subject to the new transparency legislation.
At the adoption of the FOIA, the office of the governor was exempted from being subject to FOIA requests, which in subsequent years has also exempted members of his administration. A later attorney general opinion would extend the same exemption to members of the legislature.
There have been a variety of minor changes to the legislation over the years, including in more recent legislative sessions, some worthwhile and others not. But the exclusion from the FOIA of the governor's office/administration and the legislature is never tackled. Little wonder.
Keep in mind that Michigan is only one of two states that statutorily exempts the governor's office from the FOIA. It's one of many reasons that our state ranked last in terms of ethics and transparency laws in a national study in 2015 conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.
Now comes the lead-tainted water crisis in Flint and Gov. Rick Snyder has decided to voluntarily release 21,000 pages of his e-mails related to the Flint water crisis, although he had reportedly supported the concept of expanding the FOIA to include his office when he first ran for the governor's spot. Ironically, as he was releasing the flood of e-mails, he left it up to members of his administration to determine if they would follow his example, rather than ordering everyone to follow suit.
Capitalizing on the e-mail release, a bipartisan group of Michigan House and Senate members have introduced a 10-bill package of legislation that would address the lack of transparency in the administration and the legislature.
This is not the first time lawmakers have attempted to tackle the transparency issue. Generally in the past it was always the minority party – be it Democrats or Republicans – which has introduced such legislation. The party in power would just ignore it and any effort became more of a political stunt than a legitimate push to resolve the problem.
This time, however, there seems to be a more concerted effort on both sides of the political aisle. Add to that reports that Lieutenant Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette have backed similar efforts in the past.
The package of bills introduced of late would do a few things. First, the FOIA would be extended to cover the office of governor. Second, the proposed bills would create a Legislative Open Records Act. Exempt would be constituent correspondence, personnel files, confidential trade documents that business might share with lawmakers and working papers and communications relative to bill drafting, thereby catching some of the issues that opponents are likely to raise in the weeks ahead.
If approved by both legislative chambers, the new laws would take effect January of 2017.
Our readership for Downtown newsmagazine is an educated lot, and I would have to assume can appreciate the fact that less transparency in government translates into less public oversight. It's that simple.
Although you personally may never have, nor ever will, use the FOIA to seek out government records, as journalists we use this tool on a regular basis to search on behalf of our readers – over 100,000 of them – for records held by the government in order to bring you a solid Downtown newsmagazine.
If each of our reader households would take the time to send an e-mail to their own House and Senate members, together we could have some impact on the transparency issue.
Let them know that you support the FOIA legislation that has just been introduced and want them to support the push for more transparency in Lansing. Trust me, they will listen if enough of you get engaged on this issue. It's for your own benefit.
Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Rochester, Rochester Hills:
Marty Knollenberg – firstname.lastname@example.org
Bloomfield Township, Oakland Township:
Jim Marleau – email@example.com
Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township:
Mike McCready – firstname.lastname@example.org
Rochester, Rochester Hills:
Michael Webber – email@example.com