House OK’s bills opening governor’s, lawmakers’ records

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — The House overwhelmingly approved legislation Wednesday that could force Gov. Rick Snyder’s office and the Legislature to disclose certain records as public information.

House lawmakers on Wednesday passed the 10-bill package, which now goes to the Senate for consideration. The state’s 40-year-old Freedom of Information Act allows the public to request documents from public bodies, but it excludes the governor’s and Legislature’s offices from having to disclose records and communications.

Michigan and Massachusetts are the only states in the country that exempt both the governor’s office and Legislature from open records law.

The situation could change if the Senate and Snyder approve the Legislative Open Records Act. The proposed law would allow people to file records requests for lawmakers’ and the governor’s emails but would exclude communications with constituents. The bills would open up communication between lawmakers and lobbyists, as well.

Vulcan Republican Rep. Ed McBroom said the legislation is meant to “dispel the clouds of doubt, suspicion and mistrust” hovering over elected officials.

“Quite honestly ... I say, ‘You know what, you want to know what’s going on in my office? You’re gonna find it’s pretty boring,’ ” McBroom said. But he added, “The citizens have reason to be suspicious. They have reason to have diminished trust” in their government.

While it would open new records previously not subject to disclosure laws, it also would shield personal or financial records that aren’t considered public information under existing open records law that apply to other public departments and agencies. Trade or commercial records between private individuals or businesses and lawmakers would still be private, as would legislative agendas, strategy and records from closed-door meetings.

Though the records request overhaul won House approval, it could languish in the Senate, where Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, says he has concerns with the legislation.

Meekhof stopped short Wednesday of giving an opinion. He said he is still reviewing the bill package, but said he’s concerned the law would allow the disclosure of confidential constituent communications, although the legislation specifically says those communications would be exempt from open records requests.

In contrast, Republican Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter of Mount Pleasant previously said it is “the best proposal to reform FOIA I have seen to date.”

A bipartisan group of lawmakers including Southfield Democratic Rep. Jeremy Moss and McBroom introduced the legislation in late April.

“Being transparent in government on the front end is easier in the long run because it removes all doubts,” Moss said Wednesday.

Fellow supporter Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said it’s meant to restore “people’s faith in their government” and join “the vast majority of other states” already allowing records request for the governor’s office and legislative offices.

Snyder’s and lawmakers’ internal records not exempt under the legislation would become subject to disclosure laws so long as the records were made after Jan. 1, 2017. The law would not be retroactive, meaning that it couldn’t be used to uncover more communications or records from Snyder’s office not already voluntarily released regarding the Flint water crisis.

Snyder’s office this year voluntarily released more than 25,000 pages of internal emails related to the Flint public health crisis. The emergency was spurred after the city failed to use corrosion control chemicals following its 2014 water supply switch to the Flint River.

All of the documents Snyder released were exempt from open records requests.