Coalition wants governor, lawmakers to open records

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Documents generated by Gov. Rick Snyder’s office and the Michigan Legislature would be subject to disclosure through public records requests under legislation introduced Wednesday.

A bipartisan 10-bill package seeks to put the governor and his staff under the umbrella of the Michigan’s 40-year-old Freedom of Information Act and create a new law to subject legislators’ communications to public disclosure as well.

Michigan and Massachusetts are the only states in the country where the governor and Legislature are exempt from the open records law they impose on all other levels of government.

“We’ve been getting F-ratings when it comes to transparency in different national surveys, and we see ourselves standing out kind of like a sore thumb when it comes to government transparency,” said Rep. Ed McBroom, a Dickinson County Republican sponsoring one of the bills.

The proposed Legislative Open Records Act, or LORA, would make lawmakers’ emails subject to disclosure. The exceptions would be communications with constituents and personal or financial records not deemed public information under FOIA.

House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, embraced the 10-bill package Wednesday, improving its chances of at least passing his chamber.

“This is something we can work with, and it is the best proposal to reform FOIA I have seen to date,” Cotter said in a statement.

The proposal also would exempt communications with the Legislative Services Bureau over bill drafting as well as communications within the Republican and Democratic caucuses about their agendas, legislative strategy and closed-door meetings.

Trade, commercial or financial records of private individuals or businesses provided to lawmakers to assist in the crafting of public also would exempt under the proposal.

Communications between legislators and registered lobbyists would be subject to disclosure. But an email between a school superintendent and a legislator would fall under the constituent communications exemption and remain private, McBroom said.

McBroom has been working with Democratic Rep. Jeremy Moss of Southfield on the legislation during the past year. McBroom said they worked around constitutional and legal obstacles that have thwarted previous legislative attempts to add the governor and 110-member Legislature to the state’s open records laws.

McBroom said he talked to a group of college students on Monday and encountered a student with a question about why legislators have been afforded an exemption from the public records law.

“A young lady there who works in the FOIA department for a police department questioned, she said, ‘Why is it that a rape victim’s complaint to the police department is subject to FOIA and yet my legislators aren’t?’” McBroom said. “I thought that was a really interesting point. That was a perspective I hadn’t heard before and a good reason to move this forward.”

Moss said state government controversies such as the Flint water crisis and the sex and misconduct scandal surrounding former state Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat have “heightened the sensitivity” to “a lack of transparency, a lack of openness” in laws governing the legislative branch and governor’s office.

“It has political consequences, but it’s not a political issue for us,” Moss said. “It’s a good government issue for us.”

If lawmakers and Snyder approved the package of bills, their internal records would become subject to disclosure starting with new records generated after Jan. 1, 2017, he said.

The law would not be retroactive to cover older records, and the Legislature would have to create a new office to maintain the records of representatives, senators and their staff, McBroom said.

“You’re totally changing the rules of the game,” he said. “Everybody’s going to have to learn those rules and a new way to play, and that’s going affect things, there’s no doubt about that.”

In recent weeks, Snyder has voluntarily released more than 25,000 pages of internal governor’s office emails related to Flint’s water contamination crisis that would otherwise be exempt from FOIA.

Snyder’s spokesman said Wednesday the second-term Republican governor is open to the legislative proposal.

“Gov. Snyder would closely review and consider any legislation sent over to him that changes the FOIA rules for the legislative and executive branches of government,” Snyder spokesman Ari Adler said.

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