Bill would remove Michigan officials' FOIA protections
Lansing — Michigan's public records law allows anyone to request information that can help shine a light on what government is doing, but not all of government is subject to those disclosure requirements.
Michigan's Freedom of Information Act does not cover the governor, lieutenant governor, their offices or legislators. It does, however, cover state departments, local governments and schools.
Some legislators and open records advocates argue there should be no protected class in government. They say it's time to remove the exceptions to the state's disclosure law.
A bill introduced recently in the state House would include the governor, lieutenant governor, their offices and legislators under FOIA, though its prospects appear dim.
"It is really inconsistent with the notion that citizens come first in a democracy if we are not allowing them to have access to some of the public documents that their tax dollars pay for," said Rep. Brandon Dillon, who introduced the bill.
The Grand Rapids Democrat has introduced similar legislation twice before, in each of his previous terms.
Michigan is just one of two states where those offices are completely exempt.
Michigan's FOIA specifically excludes the governor and lieutenant governor.
The law doesn't specify whether legislators are covered, but an attorney general opinion from 1986 interpreted it to mean legislators are exempt.
Massachusetts is the only other state with such broad exceptions. About 30 states do not exempt the governor or legislators from their public records laws.
Democratic Sen. Steve Bieda of Warren has tried for several years to remove the exemption for legislators.
He said that he supports removing exemptions for the executive office as well, but thought it might be easier to take on legislators first.
"Unfortunately, the track record for these types of bills for the Legislature is not so good," he said.
The Republican majority in the Senate and House have moved through some FOIA reforms.
Gov. Rick Snyder recently signed legislation changing the limits on fees that can be charged for accessing public records.
It's unclear, however, whether Snyder would support changing the exemption for the executive office.
Dave Murray, a spokesman for Snyder, said the administration had not yet reviewed Dillon's bill.
"The executive office exemption has been in effect for decades, but the Snyder administration frequently goes above and beyond what is required to provide Michiganders information about how their state government is operating," Murray said.
Dillon's bill should sound familiar to Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, who introduced legislation in 2009 while serving in the state House that would make the governor, lieutenant governor, their offices and legislators subject to FOIA while explicitly protecting constituent communications.
"We were talking about forcing a conversation on the issues of transparency," Calley said.
"The concept is still a really good one," he added.
But he said he has concerns about issues the change could pose, such as "stifling the creativity of people bouncing ideas off each other."
Those concerns have been echoed by others, but safeguards are built into FOIA.
The law exempts personal information from disclosure if its release would constitute an unwarranted invasion of privacy. There's also an exemption for advisory information, and the law allows for redacting exempt material from documents when fulfilling requests.
While FOIA might often be thought of as primarily a tool for journalists, advocacy groups such as Progress Michigan and the Mackinac Center have frequently used FOIA to access information from the state with varying degrees of success.