Senators target DIA, Detroit Zoo with public records, open meetings bills

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

The Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Zoo would have to comply with public records requests and hold open meetings under legislation introduced Tuesday in the Michigan Senate. 

The bills from Metro Detroit Sens. Jim Runestad and Ruth Johnson would amend the state's Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act to include the Detroit institutions because they receive taxpayer funds through regional operating millages. 

"With public funding, comes public accountability,” Runestad, a White Lake Republican, said in a statement. “Voters in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties contribute millions to the DIA and Detroit Zoological Society annually through their property taxes, making up a significant portion of the operating budgets for these institutions. It’s incumbent upon the Legislature to require that decisions made on taxpayer dollars are done in the open.”

The Detroit Institute of Arts would be one of two cultural groups receiving taxpayer dollars that would be required to comply with Freedom of Information Act requests under legislation introduced by two Metro Detroit state senators.

Johnson, R-Holly, echoed Runestad and argued that both institutions have "an obligation to be transparent with taxpayers."

"Our bills would apply the same laws that other public bodies already follow and would make available for public review their financial dealings including contracts, loan agreements, staff reimbursements and travel expenditures," she said in a statement. 

The bills, which have only Republican co-sponsors, were referred to the Senate Oversight Committee. 

The DIA and Detroit Zoo did not respond to requests for comment. 

The DIA and Detroit Zoo's ability to sidestep transparency measures such as public records and open meetings laws has been a point of contention in recent years as the institutions have passed operating millages to fund their enterprises. 

Earlier this month, a three-judge state Court of Appeals panel ruled the DIA and its board are not subject to the Open Meetings Act "because they are not public bodies" under the current law but more like "vendors" that receive public money. 

"The OMA does not include the receipt of public funds in the definition of 'public body,'" the Jan. 6 opinion said. But the judges' opinion noted the state's FOIA law does include entities primarily relying on public funding in its definition of public bodies subject to public records requests.  

The suit prompting the Jan. 6 decision was filed in February 2020 in Oakland County by a citizens group called Mr. Sunshine. The suit came ahead ahead of a DIA millage vote for residents in Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties. 

At the time, DIA spokeswoman Christine Kloostra said the museum is a "not-for-profit entity" not covered by FOIA or the Open Meetings Act.

eleblanc@detroitnews.com