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Opinion: Lawmakers must expand sunshine laws

Wesley H. Maurer, Jr.
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.

A nonpartisan pillar of democracy, open government, is being taken more seriously in bipartisan Michigan this year as our Democratic governor and Republican legislature work to expand Freedom of Information laws to include themselves.

Currently Michigan is the only state in the nation to exempt both the legislature and the governor from its Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), an embarrassing distinction that can be put behind us if a series of sunshine bills in the legislature are agreed on and signed into law.

The amendments being proposed to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, contained in House Bills 4007 to 4016 with bipartisan sponsorship, are not perfect, but they go a long way to expand its reach and make government more transparent. The Michigan Coalition for Open Government supports this effort and asks Michigan citizens to encourage our public officials in their effort to make government more open.

Discussion in Lansing on this important legislation is benefited by its timing with Sunshine Week, an annual project of journalists and advocates across the country to celebrate access to public information and open meetings.

Held this year from March 10 to March 16, Sunshine Week draws attention to laws that make government more accountable and accommodating to the public it serves.

FOIA allows citizens access to government documents and other information used to design, implement and enforce public policy. The Open Meetings Act (OMA) requires public bodies to let citizens know when and where they will meet and what they will discuss, and requires in most cases that citizens be allowed to attend those meetings.

In addition to the legislative amendments, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, through an executive directive issued last month, asked state agencies to streamline their deliverance of information with lower costs and quicker turn-around. She has called for more efficient ways to get information processed, to get it easily accessible online, and to livestream public meetings over the Internet.

The next two years provide an opportunity to engage in further honest conversations about how to improve our laws giving citizens access to the workings of their government. Some examples are how the bureaucracy can be better equipped to open its records and deliberations; whether enforcement of sunshine laws can be made more effective; and whether secret campaign contributions help or hurt the democratic process.

Special interests, corrupt politicians and lazy bureaucrats benefit from hidden documents and the self-serving influences that ultimately affect the lives of citizens and the cost of government. An open and transparent democratic government encourages public interest and participation. Interested and enlightened citizens vote, and healthy voter turnout leads to more representative government.

That our governor and our legislative leaders have expressed support for more open government is encouraging, and the move to include the governor’s office and legislature in FOIA is an example of how shared, nonpartisan and bipartisan interests and concerns can lead to good legislation.

As citizens, we can keep the momentum going by letting our legislators and our governor know that we support open government and appreciate their efforts to broaden the sunshine laws. We can tell them that we expect access to our government and want to participate in government affairs. And we can share with them our successes and frustrations in navigating these laws so they can continue to make them better.

Wesley H. Maurer Jr. serves on the board of directors of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and is publisher of The St. Ignace News and Mackinac Island Town Crier.