During the course of last year I devoted one of my monthly columns on the effort in Lansing to begin applying the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to both chambers of the state legislature and the office of governor, asking readers to contact both their state representatives and senators to help push the bill through the Michigan House.
In the weeks following that column, I received emails from a number of residents in both the Birmingham-Bloomfield and Rochester-Rochester Hills areas informing me that they actually took my suggestion and emailed their Lansing lawmakers. To a person, there appeared to be solid support of increased public access to what many of us have always considered to be public documents that have been shielded from Michigan residents thanks to an exemption lawmakers wrote for themselves and the governor when the FOIA was first adopted in 1976.
This month I am asking once again for everyone's help in bringing that same legislation providing more transparency in the state capitol building to a vote in the Michigan Senate, where the multiple-bill package of legislation is stalled once again by Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive).
Here's the back story on Meekhof and his continuing effort to block increased citizen access to public records in the legislature and governor's office.
Meekhoff has served two terms in the state House and will be wrapping up his second – and last – term in the Senate next year. He is currently Senate Majority Leader. His district includes all of Ottawa County in the western portion of Michigan – the part of the state that wields an unusual influence (think big political money) on what has happened in Lansing in recent years.
As for Meekhof, his tenure as a lawmaker is best described as a never-ending appeasement for the far-right when it comes to the litmus test issues that political crowd supports. And this is not the first time Meekhof has shown his true colors when it comes issues of transparency, which is why Michigan still remains mired in 50th place when the Center for Public Integrity ranked the 50 states in terms of public accountability and transparency. We are one of two states that do not apply the FOIA to the governor's office and we are one of a small number of states that still exempt their legislators.
The Michigan House of Representatives, on a near unanimous basis, passed this legislation in 2016 and sent it to the Senate where Meekhof refused to bring it to a vote before the session ended. So this spring the House, on a unanimous vote, passed the package of bills again and shipped it off to the Senate. Meekhof sent the bills to the Committee on Government Operations, which he conveniently chairs.
At first, Meekhof said that he wanted to focus his efforts on finalizing work on teacher retirement package legislation, which has now left the Senate. More recently he has announced that he sees no need for any changes to the FOIA – current laws are sufficient. The Senate Majority Leader said citizens have no interest in more laws assuring transparency. So without some serious pressure, these bills are likely to sit without movement, hearings or a committee/full Senate vote in the next 18 months, thanks to Meekhof.
This is the same Meekhof who in 2013 gave the proverbial finger to Oakland County-native and Secretary of State Ruth Johnson who announced she was going to issue a ruling that would start to address the issue of "dark money" in campaigns here by requiring groups running issue ads to release the names of donors behind the political groups. The day after her announcement, Meekhof attached an amendment to a bill doubling the individual political contribution limit – an amendment that blocks anyone from requiring the sources of "dark money" to be made public. The same Meekhof who has been fined more than once ($5,000 alone after his 2010 election) for failing to file the campaign documents showing his donors as required by state campaign finance regulations.
For those willing to get involved one more time on a concerted effort to open up most records of state lawmakers and the governor, rest assured that the bills sent to the Senate are principally the same as the ones adopted by the House last year.
The legislation would still exempt investigation records, human resource files and commercial/trade secrets that might be part of correspondence with state lawmakers. Also exempted would be correspondence from constituents (non-lobbyist), meaning letters and emails sent to/from state lawmakers and records of the political caucuses. But all other records of state lawmakers and the governor would now be accessible via an FOIA request. And in cases where disputes arise, there would be an appointed legislative council administrator empowered to make a ruling. Lastly, the legislation prohibits a public body from suing people who make FOIA requests.
This time around, I am suggesting that all senators from Oakland County be sent an email or letter, along with Meekhof. Of particular concern beyond your own state senator should be Mike Kowall from Oakland County who is the Majority Floor Leader in the Senate – basically a traffic cop who helps bills move through the floor of that chamber. Of further interest is the fact that Kowall is hoping to run in the fall of 2018 for Secretary of State so I am assuming that he is counting votes this far in advance.
In the coming weeks, please join in the push the package of bills that brings more transparency to the state legislature and the office of governor, either through an email sent as a group to those below or take the time to place a phone call to their Lansing offices in support of increasing access to records of lawmakers and the governor. Those wishing to send a traditional letter can send them to the specific senator at P.O. Box 30036, Lansing MI 48909-7536.
Your contact with state lawmakers will be much more effective if you make your case in a respectful, rather than confrontational, manner and simply ask that the senate force Meekhof to let the committee he controls and the complete Senate decide the fate of the transparency legislation.
Phone: 517.373.1758 Toll free: 866.301-6515
Phone: 517.373.7888 Toll free: 866.626.0814
Phone: 517.373.1636 Toll free: 866.305.2126
August Footnote: Our Oakland Confidential political news/gossip column has proven very popular with our followers so we have created a website – oaklandconfidential.com – just for that item. The new website will allow in the future for more frequent updates, possible expansion of our efforts in the political gossip area and a wider distribution to political junkies.