It’s time for Michigan Senate to let the sunshine in by expanding FOIA
LANSING — It’s Groundhog Day or — more accurately — Groundhog Session for the Michigan Senate as it again stalls on even discussing, let alone voting, on a series of House bills known as the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA).
For the fourth time since the bills were initially introduced in the state House in 2016, the Michigan Senate is failing to take any action on these amendments to expand coverage of the state’s Freedom of Information (FOIA) laws. The bills would require transparency and accountability in the activities of the governor, lieutenant governor and legislators. If passed, they would give Michigan citizens the right to request and obtain public records from the two branches of government. Right now, it is “none of our business.”
But the senators interested in taking up the measures are being shut out, once again, by the Senate majority leader, this time Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake). This is particularly disappointing since Shirkey, when he was a House member in 2013-14, introduced and helped shepherd through FOIA changes to deal with the high cost to obtain some public records. For his efforts to shepherd those changes into law in 2015, he was honored with the Sunshine Award given by the Michigan Press Association.
Though the LORA bills have been passed multiple times by a united, bipartisan state House, three different Senate majority leaders have buried the bills — this session in the Senate Oversight Committee chaired by Senator Ed McBroom (R-Vulcan). Shirkey is reportedly concerned that the LORA bills would allow constituent emails to be seen under FOIA requests. That was addressed in the House by members who are arguably, with their smaller number of constituents, much more in communication with the folks in their districts.
City councils, village, township and school boards, police and fire departments and county governments are all required under FOIA to provide public records — except in a limited number of exemptions — to people who request them. But this is not required of Michigan’s state elected officials.
Michigan is a national outlier and the only state to statutorily exempt the governor and lieutenant governor from the requirements of the state’s FOIA. In 1986, then-Attorney General Frank Kelley issued an opinion, subsequently reconfirmed in 2018, that Michigan’s legislators also were exempt.
That needs to change, and Governor Gretchen Whitmer agrees. In her first State of the State last year she said, “Let’s expand FOIA to my office and to the Legislature. It’s time to ensure that the sun shines equally on every branch of state government.” She’s right!
Shirkey and his Senate colleagues should finally act to fix Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act by passing the LORA bills.
There may be no better time to do this than March 15-21, National Sunshine Week, a nationwide effort led by the American Society of News Editors and the National Freedom of Information Coalition to educate the public about the vital importance of openness and transparency in government at all levels and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.
It’s past time for the members of the Senate to assert their voices and demand their leaders move these bills forward for discussion and a positive vote. Other weaknesses should be addressed as well. Michigan is an outlier again in lacking a law requiring that its elected public officials disclose their personal finances and potential conflicts of interest –especially when voting on legislation where they may receive a benefit.
In an era when the internet has made transparency and accountability both easier and cheaper, Michigan’ s elected state leaders should be held accountable to the citizens they serve. Pass the LORA!
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Jane Briggs-Bunting is a board member and founding president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG), a tax exempt, Michigan nonprofit corporation founded to promote and protect transparency and accountability in government at the local, state and federal levels. For more information, visit www.miopengov.org.