Nearly every state allows citizens to access records about state legislatures and governors. Not Michigan.
It’s not for a lack of trying. Bills introduced in each of the last two years have passed the Michigan House but died in the Senate.
Jane Briggs-Bunting, founding president and current board member of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, says she’ll keep working to include lawmakers, the governor and the lieutenant governor in the state’s Freedom of Information Act. She spoke with WDET’s Sandra Svoboda.
To hear the edited conversation, click on the audio above. Here’s a transcript of it:
Sandra Svoboda: Can you give me some examples of someone using FOIA revealed something in government or made a particular difference in a policy, event or action that really made a difference to the citizens of the state?
Jane Briggs-Bunting: FOIA made a tremendous difference to the people of Flint. Unfortunately it was better late than never. A reporter at the local paper up there, The Flint Journal, continually observed there was a problem going on, went after it, trying to get information, filed dozens of Freedom of Information requests trying to get information on what was going on with the water situation in Flint. He went to meetings, he saw the discoloration of the water. He smelled it, he heard the complaints from citizens, and he kept asking the questions and demanding records from public officials in Flint. So FOIA was critical in unwrapping this problem.
Svoboda: The Michigan Freedom of Information Act is 40 years old this year. What are some of its strengths and what are some of its weaknesses?
Briggs-Bunting: Some of its strengths are that it does require public bodies to be responsive to citizens. There’s a series of exemptions where this information does not have to go out but basically it make public bodies much more accountable to the people they’re supposed to serve. The weaknesses are significant. Fees are a weakness. Another weakness is the statutory exemption of the governor and lieutenant governor. Michigan is the only state in the nation that by law exempts the governor and the lieutenant governor from being under the Freedom of Information Act. In the late 1980s, … Attorney General Frank Kelley’s office issued an Attorney General opinion which exempted the state legislature. This is a terrible weakness. I mean here are the people who are making the laws about what public bodies have to disclose, what the city has to disclose, what the mayor has to disclose, what the school board has to disclose, what the police have to disclose and yet holds itself above the law that they made.
Svoboda: Is the Michigan Legislature revisiting the FOIA law at all to make any changes to it?
Briggs-Bunting: There’s this bill passed by the House now. This last time, this last session by a 98-0 vote which would make the governor and lieutenant governor and the legislature subject to it. It’s called the Legislative Open Records Act, and it’s being killed off in committee by the Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof.
Svoboda: If citizens want to make their opinions known about these bills, what can they do?
Briggs-Bunting: They should immediately contact their state legislator and their state Senator and ask them why are these bills not getting through the legislature? Why are they not being brought up for a vote?’
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Svoboda: Do you see FOIA becoming a campaign issue in the 2018 state elections?
Briggs-Bunting: FOIA should definitely become a major issue that the public should be concerned about because we need to know our elected official understand what the Freedom of Information Act is and how important it is and vital it is to transparency and accountability in government. One of the issues we have in Michigan is we do have term limits on our legislatures so often you get a new class in and they’re not at all familiar with the law or what the requirements of the law are. Many of these individual comes from the private sector where they’re not covered by laws like the FOIA where they’re supposed to operate openly and in public and disclose what’s going on in government.