Government operates better with transparency

As legislators and other state leaders settle into their offices and new roles down in Lansing, we hope one priority that emerges in the collective thought around the Capitol is transparency.

During this legislative session, lawmakers need to take a good hard look at where the state stands among the rest of the United States when it comes to the Freedom of Information Act and transparency.

Under Michigan’s current FOIA laws, the governor’s office and Legislature are exempt, meaning the people in those institutions have no legal requirement to disclose records sought by us in the media or any other member of the public.

Yet, as public servants, they technically work for us.

It’s unclear why these two branches of our state government were excluded from FOIA laws in the past, and we can’t seem to find any good reason why those exemptions shouldn’t be changed.

One thing is clear, though, and that is whatever can be done to improve transparency in government must be done.

Mistrust in our elected leaders, at both state and federal levels, has been high for far too long. One way to help that is by opening up the books, so to speak, and providing Jane Q. Public with the opportunity to see what’s transpiring, if she so chooses.

There are few places in the U.S. more in need of this transparency than the Great Lakes State.

Michigan is one of just two states in the country to wholly exempt the governor from open-records laws, according to a recent article by The Associated Press. Moreover, there are only eight states where the Legislature is explicitly exempt.

It’s clear to us, as it should be to anyone paying taxes, that when officials are conducting business on behalf of the public and on the public’s dime, that business should be done up front and in the clear bright light of day — not shrouded in mystery behind some closed-off, curtained-up back room.

Open meetings are a good venue for that, but public records should also be readily available to anyone who wants to take a look, for whatever reason they please.

History is replete with examples of bad things that have happened when there’s a lack of transparency, and we must learn from those mistakes.

However, the good news is that Michigan’s Legislature may actually be prepared for a shift toward increased openness.

The House in 2016 and 2017 overwhelmingly passed similar bills to the legislation currently being discussed, but the measures couldn’t gain any traction in the Senate. That was the first time such a measure cleared a legislative chamber since the FOIA law was passed more than four decades ago, the AP reported.

New Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield sounds to be open to the idea of changing the open-records laws. “The people have a right to know what their government is doing and we have the responsibility to tell them the truth,” Chatfield told the AP.

But the Senate’s new Republican Majority Leader Mike Shirkey seems slightly less enthused, telling the AP he’s “not as much of an advocate on this as some people are.”

The AP also reports that the Senate has many new members who came over from the House who supported the legislation when they were in that chamber. We hope they’ll do the same in the Senate.

Allowing the public to stay informed on what their government is doing isn’t just good policy, it’s a fundamental of democracy.

— The Mining Journal (Marquette)