Opinion: Michigan lacks government transparency

Beth Konrad
Michigan is the only state in which the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor and every member of the state Legislature are not subject to FOIA requests, Konrad writes.

FOIA, the federal Freedom of Information Act, was designed to provide the public the right to request access to records from governmental agencies. Under the law, federal agencies are required to disclose any information requested.

It has proven an incredibly useful tool for journalists and citizens who have embraced various state versions of the law.

Consider this: In Michigan, there are more than 10,000 public bodies — including cities, counties, townships, school districts, municipal corporations and state commissions —  and those FOIA requests have unlocked information that politicians and other officials have wanted to keep hidden.

As a former broadcast journalist now working as a college adjunct professor, I used FOIA in my reporting days and now teach my students how to use it. And for the past six months, I’ve been conducting interviews and attending workshops on the subject.

Most surprising in that research is how the law is working in Michigan. Many citizens offered stories of their requests for information from school districts, water commissioners, zoning boards, state and local housing commissions and many more. Those residents reported denials, delays and high fees for record searches and copying costs.

Salem High School student journalist Chris Robbins' Freedom of Information Act request resulted in a nearly $8,000 bill.

Not surprisingly, at every meeting or conversation, people were stunned to discover the severe restrictions concerning the Michigan FOIA.

In most states, FOIA laws permit requests of information from the executive and legislative branches of government. But in Michigan, the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor and every member of the state Legislature are not subject to FOIA requests.

Michigan is the only state with such restrictions, which could explain why the state ranked last nationally in government accountability and transparency in a recent study by the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity.

How did this happen?

In 1986, then state Attorney General Frank Kelly issued an opinion exempting the Michigan Legislature from FOIA requests. In 2018, former state Attorney General Bill Schuette affirmed that opinion.

Those decisions highlight the emphasis on the need to reform and reintroduce the spirit of the state’s 42-year-old law.

Those exemptions, the long delays, the heavy-handed fees for searches and copying costs, and non-uniform enforcement of FOIA requests need to be addressed.

Local journalists have paid thousands in fees and appeals for FOIA requests. Community organizations and residents also have faced those fees and delays. Sadly, these folks can’t pay or have the resources to get advice.

In addition to the need for reform, a stronger effort is needed to teach Michigan citizens on the importance of the law and how it can be used to get information released to the public.

A coalition of journalism organizations, community groups, educational institutions and advocates for open government will offer some of that training on Oct. 12 at a “FOIA Festival” at Wayne State University.

The groups’ goals are to build a greater awareness and understanding of the Michigan Freedom of Information Act and Michigan’s Open Meeting Act and to encourage citizen advocacy for FOIA reforms in Michigan.

State Attorney General Dana Nessel will be the luncheon keynote speaker.

Join us to find out about FOIA and why you should care.

For more information about the conference, go to SPJdetroit.org.

Beth Konrad is president of the Detroit chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.