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FOIA exemptions feed public distrust

We have an idea for Michigan’s governor to act on before the next term begins: Expand the state’s Freedom of Information Act laws to apply to the executive office.

Then, if Gov. Gretchen Whitmer returns to office, what a positive, meaningful way to start her second term — holding to the promise she made to the people of the state of Michigan when she campaigned in 2018.

And, if she isn’t returning, she can still act on that promise and leave it as a parting gift. What a statement that would make to her successor. So there.

Simply put, the public’s work must be done in public.

That isn’t happening right now. But it needs to happen — and it needs to happen soon. Openness is what it’s going to take to help repair the damage that has been done in Michigan.

As we go about our work as reporters in this region, we encounter people who are upset with their government, who distrust the system. And any branch of government that is allowed to operate in secrecy sends a negative message that feeds that view.

Then, when an elected body has to be compelled by court order to provide information that the taxpaying, voting citizens have a right to know, it further confirms the distrust.

Why must a request for public information be viewed with suspicion? It truly is baffling to us. After all, elected officials are public servants. Questions regarding the public’s business should not be an imposition, those questions should be expected — welcomed, in fact — and answered promptly.

We’ve got a big problem in Michigan, which is one of only two states that exempt both the governor’s office and the Legislature from FOIA requests.

That’s right: Forty-eight states are more open than our Midwestern “model of integrity.” What the heck happened here? High-flying intentions of openness and accountability have been expressed, literally for years, but legislative proposals have stalled, withering in committee in the state Senate.

The Center for Public Integrity gave Michigan an “F” grade for executive and legislative accountability, among other categories, in 2015. Not much has changed since then.

House lawmakers proposed FOIA improvements in the wake of the Flint water disaster. In 2020, a 10-bill package, the first significant revisions to the FOIA in its more than 40-year history, began to wend its way through the Legislature. These would have removed the exemptions that allow the Legislature and governor’s office to operate in secret.

We should note that the existing FOIA law doesn’t explicitly exempt the Legislature. But, when a 1986 attorney general’s opinion held that the statute was intended to shield lawmakers from public view while conducting the public’s business, it had the force of law. That provides a convenient cover for legislators, unless they choose to do something about it.

Here’s the point: They need to do something about it — unless they’ve got a lot to hide. That’s the message voters are getting.

In the meantime, a group called Progress Michigan isn’t relying on the governor or Legislature to do anything. They’re planning a ballot initiative for November 2024 calling for the elimination of those FOIA exemptions for the Legislature and governor’s office.

Either way, something’s going to give. We’d prefer it be sooner rather than later — for the sake of our state.

— Traverse City Record-Eagle

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