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Transparency is more than just a word

We here at the Traverse City Record-Eagle know a thing or two about transparency.

We’re connoisseurs of clarity, if you will, when it comes to the way our governments operate. And we’ve seen it all — good and bad — from every imaginable agency, district, board, township, office, department or committee.

It is our job, after all, to provide the public a watchful eye, to pull back the curtain and provide a clear view of the structures built to serve us all.

Seeing is believing, after all.

That’s why we feel it’s necessary to point out when those who partake in a taxpayer funded paycheck stray into opaque funny business while flapping their lips about transparency. We also feel a duty to call out a few kudos to those who get it right.

We’re particularly compelled by the juxtaposition provided by two of northern Michigan’s largest school governments.

We haven’t seen a better example of true government transparency, the kind that telegraphs a commitment to the spirit of our state’s open records law, than what we witnessed from the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District a few weeks ago.

Officials with the district responded admirably to a Record-Eagle reporter’s request for records related to the recent shakeup in the Great Start Readiness Program. It took only five days for officials to turn loose hundreds of pages of communications, and they refrained from charging unnecessary fees.

That last part is particularly important.

Some of the worst behavior related to government transparency we have witnessed in Michigan has been through bureaucrats weaponizing fees allowed under the state’s Freedom of Information Act. No law states governments must charge for records, and we would argue such a practice is tantamount to double taxation. We do, after all, pay copious tax bills each year.

If you’re not convinced, take a second to add up sales tax, fuel tax, property taxes and income tax.

Yet, many government officials see fit to use egregious fees to discourage taxpayers and journalists from asking for a peek inside the offices for which they pay the bills.

For what purpose do we pay those taxes if not to cover the costs of a transparent government?

This is where the apropos comparison landed in our inboxes.

The same day we received TBAISD’s decisively clear response, our reporters also received a much more murky answer to a pair of similar records requests sent to Traverse City Area Public Schools.

The folks in charge of “transparency” at TCAPS told us they will happily provide the requested records — and for that matter a peek inside their thus far puzzling decision to cut the GSRP program — but only if the Record-Eagle is willing to cough up more than $1,200 in return.

Their response was a roll of the dice. They’ve found success in recent years turning away pesky records requesters by blasting back ridiculous fee estimates. Searching for records, basic transparency, appears to be a particularly onerous task for TCAPS.

It seems, for some reason, technological advances that make responding to such requests quick and simple, like keyword searches in email databases, haven’t reached a school district with a near-$100 million annual budget.

Or maybe the people making decisions about records requests just like the sound of the word “transparency” and not its meaning.

It’s both refreshing and concerning to see such a contrast between two local governments’ approach to openness.

This is yet another reminder that words without action aren’t worth the breath spent to expel them.

— Traverse City Record-Eagle

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