Opinion: Citizens should be able to see government actions during COVID-19 crisis

John Lindstrom

As Michigan and the nation deal with the threats posed by the coronavirus to our health and economy, it’s clear how important it is to be able to get access to government information at many levels. That access is supposed to be protected through federal and state Freedom of Information laws and Michigan’s Open Meetings Act. 

This is particularly pressing during the 16th observance of national Sunshine Week from March 15-21. Here in Michigan the state Supreme Court, just days before Sunshine Week, heard arguments in a case that could dramatically limit the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act by giving governments an easy screen to hide documents.

In Bisio v. Clarkston. Susan Bisio requested documents on a property issue from Clarkston’s city attorney. Most of the documents were turned over, but not all, though the city attorney’s publicly accessible invoices listed all the documents requested. The city never claimed the documents fell under the FOIA’s exceptions and didn’t list a reason for why some of the documents weren’t provided, as the law requires. 

The Michigan Hall of Justice, also known as the Michigan Supreme Court building, in Lansing.

Instead, the city attorney argued he was not part of the city and because the records were in a private file, they weren’t public records, though the records could have been used in making a public decision.

Oakland’s Circuit Court and the Michigan Court of Appeals agreed with that argument, siding with the city of Clarkston and secrecy.

The matter is now before the Michigan Supreme Court. If the Supreme Court finds for Clarkston, it will create a massive loophole for local governments to keep documents secret. They could argue a local government employee is not an agent of the public, even though paid with public funds, and that anything produced is not subject to FOIA. Or they could have the city attorney hold all government documents, even those the city attorney didn’t work on, to prevent their release. Information about zoning and budget decisions, audits critical of government operations and much more could be withheld.

Local governments argued before the Supreme Court that disagreeing with the lower courts would massively expand FOIA, add costs and possibly frighten away businesses concerned about private information becoming public.

However, if the Supreme Court agrees with the lower court rulings, the court will effectively reject its 1983 ruling that “the proper functioning of government and public control of government in a democracy require that the people have full access to public information.” It should not take that step.

For one thing, studies show that giving citizens access to government records not only can stop corruption, it can save money. In a study entitled “Financing Dies in Darkness?” scholars showed how local newspaper closures resulted in less efficient government — because government operations weren’t watched — leading to higher government borrowing costs and higher taxes.

Government attempts — often in the name of greater efficiency — to limit access promised through FOIA and the Open Meetings Act means government is less well run. Cut down accessibility to government and citizens no longer know what their government officials are doing, limiting their ability to lobby against bad decisions or suggest needed changes.

And yes, open government could possibly save lives. China’s government made the coronavirus outbreak immeasurably worse because it blocked information about early infections Had citizens had the right to insist on more information from the government, more people could have taken safeguards earlier, and possibly far fewer people would have died.

Michigan’s people are Michigan’s government, and the ability to access government servants and operations is not a luxury. It is a critical necessity and we must take steps to jealously guard that open access.

John Lindstrom, retired publisher of Gongwer News Service, is a member of the Mid-Michigan Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.