Leading the charge on FOIA reform

State legislators in Lansing can be an easy target for criticism, but in this case they deserve recognition for getting it right.

This week, the Michigan House of Representatives’ competitiveness committee approved legislation that would subject state lawmakers and the governor’s office to the same open-records laws that are imposed on all other governmental agencies and elected officials in Michigan.

When the Michigan Freedom of Information Act was passed in 1976, legislators for whatever reason exempted themselves and the governor’s office from its provisions.

It’s remained that way in the more than 40 years since. Last year, a package of bills was introduced to remove that blanket exemption afforded to lawmakers and the governor. The bills were passed by House members at the end of last year’s legislative session, but Republican leadership in the state Senate never brought the bills to a vote.

The proposal was put forth again this year, with Emmet County-area state Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, among the legislative leaders introducing it. The bills were passed out of the House’s committee on Thursday and appear headed to a floor vote next week. Then, they’ll be turned over to the Senate for another shot at approval next week.

The timing is appropriate. March 12-18 is “Sunshine Week,” a nationwide celebration of the public’s right to access information about the government. The hope is to draw people’s attention to the process through which any citizen may obtain public information.

Often times it feels like government agencies and officials are too big and distant to reach. Even if the idea is that they work for us, it frequently seems like they exist above us.

This policy provides an example of that. For years, by not changing this policy, legislators have implicitly endorsed a policy that allows them to operate outside of the laws they impose on other elected leaders in our state.

This is wrong. Along with many of his colleagues, Chatfield is working to change that and we applaud him for it.

We agree that there should be some information withheld from public view, especially as it relates to lawmakers helping constituents with their problems. But a policy that exempts legislators from any public scrutiny of this kind is a breeding ground for mistrust.

We hope the state Senate takes up this bill package quickly and passes it so that Gov. Rick Snyder can sign it and then move on to the next order of business. This is not a change that requires much more debate. It makes sense.

— Petoskey News-Review

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