House OKs open records plan as Senate shows opposition

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — The House unanimously approved Thursday an 11-bill package to subject the offices of the governor and state lawmakers to open records requests.

But even as the Senate proceeds with a similar plan to shine a light on shielded documents at the Legislature and Gov. Rick Snyder’s office, the issue could die in Senate because Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof is opposed.

“Yeah, there’s no support for that over here either,” Meekhof, R-West Olive, said Thursday about the House plan before its approval. He added that he’s not planning any hearings for the Senate version of the plan, nor is there “overwhelming support for those” bills among senators.

Republican House Speaker Tom Leonard said the unanimous House approval of every bill in the package should send a strong message to Meekhof.

“Well, if 1,080 to zero doesn’t convince him, I don’t know what will,” Leonard said, totaling the votes for the 10-bill package.

Michigan is one of two states in the nation that do not subject both their governor’s and state lawmakers’ offices to open records requests. The House plan would apply the governor’s office to the Freedom of Information Act that currently applies to local elected officials across the state.

The House plan would also create a Legislative Open Records Act allowing citizens and journalists to request currently shielded documents at the Michigan Legislature, a separation that supporters say is necessary because of constitutional provisions and court rulings. Some exemptions apply to the measure, including communications with constituents who are not lobbyists and draft budget proposals and speeches at the governor’s office.

Sens. Tonya Schuitmaker and Rick Jones, both Republicans, on Wednesday introduced the Senate version of the legislation.

But Meekhof has argued there’s no need to open such records to public purview because the Senate already puts the text of proposed bills online, holds public hearings on legislation and makes video of sessions available for the public online. The public can also inspect business leases and staff salary information on request.

“I do not think lobbyists should be able to request my emails so they can advantage their clients,” Meekhof wrote this week in an MLive commentary. “I do not think political opponents should be able to review my calendar for their own gain. I do not think my staff people deserve to have their personnel records scrutinized by the public simply because they work to serve the public.”

Meekhof has said he will consider the legislation if a majority of Republicans push for a vote, spokeswoman Amber McCann said.

Legislative supporters argue that state lawmakers should be held to the same transparency standards as other local government officials, who must disclose certain documents under the Freedom of Information Act.

The Flint water crisis revealed the need to see currently shielded documents at the governor’s office when there were questions about Snyder’s possible involvement, reform advocates said. Snyder voluntarily released tens of thousands of private emails regarding the public health disaster, but some critics have questioned whether the governor revealed everything because there would be no way to know for sure.

“If Michigan residents and journalists can’t see the inane parts of how their government works,” how will they examine issues like “a health and water crisis in a crowded Michigan city,” Southfield Democratic Rep. Jeremy Moss said Thursday, urging fellow lawmakers to support the plan.

“We represent the same folks that the people in the Senate represent, and I think they’re gonna have to take a tough look at these bills to make sure that they’re adequately fighting for their constituents’ right to understand how their government works,” Moss said after the votes.

Rep. Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said “government transparency should be non-negotiable.”

But without Meekhof’s support, neither the House nor the Senate plan have much of a chance of making it Snyder’s desk.