Whitmer bans campaign activities on public dime, use of private email

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News
Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks to the news media moments after signing her first executive directive of her administration.

Lansing — Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a package of rules Thursday seeking transparency and accountability within state government, the latest policy changes from the Democratic governor who was sworn in two days ago.

The six directives signed Thursday curb campaign activity with government resources and restore reporting requirements surrounding “irregularities” with public money or property.

The orders emphasize the “high expectations and integrity” expected of state workers by Michigan residents, Whitmer said in a statement.

"To continue to earn public confidence, we must set good examples and act ethically at all times," she said

The directives seem to expand on Whitmer’s inaugural order Wednesday that set up a mandate and process for state employees to report any imminent threats to public health, safety or welfare to department directors.

While Whitmer said the directive was prompted by several issues, she acknowledged that reporting failures during the Flint water crisis and emerging PFAS chemical contamination around the state exemplified the need for such an order.

The order sets up a process for employees to report financial discrepancies, even if they are ignored by their direct superior, and eventually routes substantiated issues to the chief compliance officer, the director of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget, the auditor general, the attorney general and governor.   

With the exception of the email ban, the orders seem to reinforce existing law and expected practice while sending a message about Whitmer's priorities, said David Dulio, chairman of the political science department at Oakland University. The orders put in place widely supported concepts, while buying time to accomplish the more challenging campaign promises, such as fixing the roads, he said. 

"Who’s going to argue against transparency on these issues?" Dulio said. "It’s a win for the administration to have a victory right away without having much of a fight.”

The requirement to report irregularities with public resources was first established by former Democratic Gov. G. Mennen Williams, Whitmer said in the directive. Williams was governor from 1949 to 1961.

Whitmer’s order regarding campaign finance piggy backs on the state’s campaign finance act and Michigan Civil Service Commission, which prevent employees from using state resources for campaign activity as well as banning employees from conducting such activity on state time or property.

In another move, Whitmer ordered a stop to the use of private email for state business, noting that “the use of private email to conduct state business is inconsistent” with goals of openness and transparency. 

The directive also banned state employees from using state email for non-state activities and requires departments to keep state emails according to the appropriate record retention schedule.

There were instances during the Snyder administration when state officials used private email to do state business.

In 2013, the state's then-chief information officer, David Behen, directed four state employees to use private email addresses to correspond with charter school advocates and technology company officials who were part of a group's project exploring the use of technology to drive down public school costs, according to records obtained by The Detroit News. Republican Gov. Rick Snyder subsequently disbanded the effort.

While the orders strengthening campaign finance and email transparency are positive, they still operate under "a bit of an honor system" without increasing accessibility to the public through meaningful public records expansion, said Craig Mauger, executive director for the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. 

"The more communication you can make available to the public the better," Mauger said. "That is a way to build public trust, to say 'You don’t have to just believe us. We’re going to make this information available to you and you can see for yourself.'”

Whitmer also signed orders that put in place ethics standards for directors, appointees and employees; require agencies and departments to review and report how their activities will affect the budget; and establish processes for how departments handle legislative activity.

The legislative order requires departments submitting proposed legislation to lawmakers first submit those proposals to the state budget director and the governor’s legislative affairs director to ensure "the executive branch speaks with one voice on its legislative initiatives."

Additionally, the order requires departments to report any appropriations that are included or added to a bill that would step around residents’ right to referendum.

“I intend to veto legislation that circumvents the right to referendum,” Whitmer wrote.


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