Snyder pressured on transparency law despite email dump

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing — Democrats ramped up pressure Monday on Republican Gov. Rick Snyder and legislative leaders to expand the Freedom of Information Act, pointing out that Lt. Gov. Brian Calley and Attorney General Bill Schuette have backed similar efforts.

Snyder this weekend released more than 16,500 pages of executive staff emails related to the Flint water crisis. He did so voluntarily, but Democrats noted he would have been required to under public record disclosure laws in most other states.

“Public pressure has clearly forced Gov. Snyder to release emails about what happened in the poisoning of Flint water,” said House Minority Leader Tim Greimel, D-Auburn Hills. “…When we allow government to operate in secret, it’s far less likely to be accountable to the people and much more likely to be corrupt.”

The emails showed, among other things, that the governor’s top aides and communications staff were aware of Flint water issues well before public disclosure and that Snyder could have declared a state emergency months before he did.

Greimel and Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Brandon Dillon are urging the governor, House Speaker Kevin Cotter and Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof to support a bipartisan House plan to lift longstanding FOIA exemptions for the executive office and state Legislature.

They want action by the end of “Sunshine Week,” March 19, on legislation introduced or supported by Reps. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan; John Bizon, R-Battle Creek; Martin Howrylak, R-Troy; Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield; and Jon Hoadley, D-Kalamazoo.

Moss and McBroom are expected to introduce a new and separate legislative package that same week that would propose a more expansive public disclosure law that would apply to both the governor’s office and Legislature.

Calley co-sponsored FOIA reform legislation in 2009 but the bill did not even receive a committee hearing in the then Democrat-controlled House. Snyder reportedly endorsed the proposal during his first campaign for governor, according to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Former Rep. Pete Lund, a Shelby Township Republican and lead sponsor on the 2009 bill, said Democrats who controlled the House at the time refused to take up the measure.

“It’s always amazing about attacking something that you killed,” Lund said Monday when asked about the recent Democratic criticism. “The people in office may not necessarily have been there, but they were the part of power at the time.”

Asked why Republicans, who have controlled the governor’s office and Legislature since 2011, have not acted on FOIA reforms, Lund attributed it to a matter of priorities.

Greimel and Dillon said they could not comment on the 2009 bill because they were not in office then, but they expressed hope that more Republicans will join the latest call for reform.

“This is not about partisanship,” Greimel said. “This is about Republicans and Democrats joining together and doing the right thing.”

To that end, Greimel said House Democrats will be releasing information in coming weeks in response to a recent FOIA request from the Associated Press even though the Legislature is exempt. That request is not Flint-specific.

Snyder released his own emails in January and last week told The Detroit News he would release all emails from his executive office.

But the governor stopped short of endorsing an expansion of the state’s public records request law to subject his office and the Legislature to the same rules as all other levels of government in the state. Michigan is one of two states that don’t release emails from these branches of government open to public inspection.

“I’m starting with that in terms of this release,” Snyder said of the emails his office ended up sharing this weekend. “So I’m not going to get into the broader question at this point in time. … To be blunt, I’m working on making sure we get the information out on the executive office.”

Schuette, who along with Calley is a prospective 2018 gubernatorial candidate, earlier this month encouraged the Legislature to revisit the state’s public records law.

“I think that since the Flint water crisis, the reset button has been pushed, and I think everything is up for review,” Schuette said Feb. 9. “So from my standpoint, I think the Legislature should look at FOIA to see what changes we could make and make it more open, more transparent.”

Meekhof, R-West Olive, has shied away from talk of expanding FOIA, citing concern over the privacy rights of constituents who contact their representatives. Cotter, R-Mt. Pleasant, is open to seeing new reform proposals that “make good, serious changes,” a spokesman said Monday, but he “doesn't have any time for political stunts that so often use this issue as a vehicle.”

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