Hill: Michiganians need access to public records
If people told you they were going to spend your money and make rules about how you live your life, you would have lots of questions and ask for all kinds of information.
Who made the decisions? Are they requiring something because it’s best for you, or it’s best for them or their friends, or just because it’s easier? Or might there be a better way they didn’t consider because you didn’t get a chance to speak up?
Michigan’s state and local governments are spending your money and deciding a lot of what you can and can’t do. You deserve to know what goes into those incredibly important decisions. But you can’t do that without a transparent government.
The Michigan Legislature made some progress in December toward making actions taken by government entities and school districts more transparent by improving the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) through House Bill 4001. The measure was designed to make it easier and less expensive for citizens to get information about their government.
Unfortunately, despite its initial passage in the House by a huge bipartisan margin of 102-8, the bill was weakened before being passed by the Senate and signed into law (Public Act 563) by Gov. Rick Snyder. For instance, the final version dropped a provision that would have eliminated fringe benefits in the formula for determining labor costs as a part of the fee charged for information.
The final law requires that fees for paper copies be no more than 10 cents per page, an effort to keep those fees lower, more consistent and less arbitrary. It also requires that public bodies provide information about fees and procedures to the public for free, such as by posting it on websites if they have one.
The law also improves the appeals process when a citizen disagrees with a public body’s denial of information or the amount charged. And it includes a fine of $2,500 to $7,500 for each time a public body willfully and intentionally fails to comply with Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act.
Mike Shirkey, the Clark Lake Republican who introduced the original bill in the House, now is in the Senate. We encourage him to offer new legislation to restore the stronger provisions he proposed.
The Legislature also should consider again separate, unsuccessful proposals to create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals and to expand FOIA coverage for the legislative branch so it more closely resembles the open government requirements that apply to the executive branch (although the governor’s office remains exempt from FOIA).
The issue is especially timely this week, when the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) — which educates citizens about their right to access public records, attend public meetings and keep an eye on public bodies — joins citizens and journalists from around the country in observing Sunshine Week, an annual show of support for open government and freedom of information laws.
Michigan citizens also can do more on their own to advance the cause of open government.
Ask your government agencies, including school boards and city councils, to be responsive to FOIA requests and to eliminate obstacles to access rather than creating them. Challenge them to do even more and to take an active role in making public as much information as possible about their operations and budgets, including posting them on websites.
Let them know you will not be shy about asking for information, and that you expect their help.
And, most of all, remember that it is your information — belonging to the citizens of Michigan — that you are asking for when you look for information to educate your children better, make your streets safer, help your business thrive or improve the quality of life for you and your neighbors.
Charles Hill is a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and a former longtime Michigan chief of bureau for the Associated Press.