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Government Transparency Bills Attracting Mixed Reviews

Michigan got an "F" on government transparency in a 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity. (Wikimedia Commons)
Michigan got an "F" on government transparency in a 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity. (Wikimedia Commons)
March 6, 2019

LANSING, Mich. — A package of bills designed to improve government transparency went before the state House Government Operations committee on Tuesday.

Michigan has the worst record on government transparency in the country, according to a 2015 report from the Center for Public Integrity. That is mostly because under current law, the governor, lieutenant governor and Legislature are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, meaning they don't have to make their records public.

Bipartisan bills HR 4007-4016 would create a framework for public record requests, to be known as the Legislative Open Records Act.

Sam Inglot, deputy communications director for the group Progress Michigan, said his group has been fighting on this issue for years.

"Not only is it somewhat of an embarrassment that we're at the bottom of the barrel when it comes to ethics and transparency,” Inglot said, ”but we lack a key accountability tool for citizens to make sure that their government is working responsibly for them and not some corporate special interests.”

However, Inglot said the bills still don't go far enough because they prevent citizens or news organizations who have had their records request denied from appealing in court. Instead, appeals are handed to an administrator appointed by the Legislature.

Opponents of the bills warn that increased public scrutiny could open up privacy issues and discourage open and frank discussions among lawmakers.

The bills also require the Legislature to keep all records for just 30 days. Inglot said that's not long enough.

"Thirty days is far less than other levels and layers of government,” he said. “Some municipalities and local governments have to hold onto documents for a number of years. So we just don't think that's good enough."

Inglot said during the Flint water crisis, many FOIA requests were denied, and it took a massive public outcry to convince Gov. Rick Snyder to release correspondence related to the scandal.

Bills on transparency have passed the Michigan House unanimously in the past but have been blocked in the Senate. But Inglot said he thinks this year supporters may have the votes.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - MI