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Miles: Michigan undermines public trust without transparency

Gary Miles
The Detroit News

Michigan is falling behind.

Not just in infrastructure, next-generation auto plants and representation. The state is falling behind in transparency, which is critical to restoring public trust.

Since it was written into law in 1976, Michigan residents have been "entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them," or so says the state's Freedom of Information Act.

We're paying their salaries; they’re supposed to work for us.

When Michigan doesn't live up to that standard, it contributes to a crisis of trust that grips our political system and divides not just our state, but arguably our nation, as well. It undermines trust in our leaders and raises questions about the independence of our press.

Michigan is falling behind in transparency, which is critical to restoring public trust, Miles writes.

Last week, state legislators began an effort to strengthen that law.

"We're going to do an overhaul; we're going to fix it,” said Rep. Steven Johnson, R-Wayland, chair of the House Oversight Committee.

That's necessary. Trust is necessary.

It's especially important, for example, in the relationship between university presidents, faculty and governing boards.

Shortly after University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel abruptly suspended Provost Martin Philbert amid sexual harassment allegations in January 2020, The Detroit News reported that there had been warning signs of misconduct. The university settled a 2004 lawsuit when depositions revealed evidence of Philbert's inappropriate behavior.

The provost is a powerful person at a major university; he or she can make or break careers and uphold or trash its reputation.

Wondering if more signs had been missed when Schlissel appointed him in 2017, The News requested Philbert’s personnel file, a public record.

Historically, such a request under the law needed to be fulfilled in five business days. A public body can request an additional 10 days when necessary.

But the university dragged its heels.

It was moving quickly elsewhere. It hired law firm WilmerHale to investigate. By early March, Schlissel learned enough to remove Philbert as provost.

By June, Philbert resigned his tenured professor position. 

Still, five months later, the university had not yet released his personnel file.

On July 31, the WilmerHale report documented Philbert's lengthy pattern of sexual misconduct. It also revealed that Schlissel learned about the 2004 lawsuit before Philbert’s appointment took effect. He'd also been sent a university report with an anonymous complaint that the provost “was/is a notorious sexual predator” in April 2019, but there was no evidence that Schlissel had read it.

Still, the university withheld Philbert's personnel file.

In early August, Schlissel apologized for the entire affair, including the missed warning signs.

Yet it wasn’t until late that month, on Aug. 26, that the university released Philbert’s file. Not surprisingly, the most salient information had already been released, in the university's time frame and through the filter of Michigan's legal review.

Further, Philbert was long gone; a new provost had been appointed.

Schlissel later faced a vote of no confidence at the university and, last month, facing growing mistrust among segments of the board, negotiated his comfortable exit in 2023.

So how did the university evade public records norms for so long?

The opening to flaunt the time-honored deadlines of our open records law was created, ironically, during a 2014 effort to strengthen it. The changes suggested, for the first time, that there might be a difference between “responding to” and “fulfilling” a request.

Most states have stringent deadlines: Of the 37 states with time limits, eight states require responses in 3 days or fewer, 10 in 5 days or fewer, 13 in 10 days or fewer and 6 in 20 days or fewer, according to Ballotpedia.

Now, many public bodies eschew historic deadlines. We have seen nearly year-long delays in the state release of some documents regarding the Midland County dams that failed, communications between health officials regarding the state's pandemic response and numerous others. Instead of being the crowbar to pry truth out of our government, the law is used as a shield behind which to hide.

There are other challenges. There are signs that state, local and school officials evade scrutiny by communicating outside official channels. Some, like UM, require paper checks as payment before releasing documents. Neither the governor's office nor legislators are covered by the law, so we can't see documents that might tell us the scientific basis for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's COVID restrictions or what Gov. Rick Snyder knew about Flint water.

If Michigan wants to restore credibility — in elections and health, in universities and local communities — it needs to strengthen transparency. Strengthen trust.

Only then can Michigan residents begin to feel that they're getting, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

Gary Miles is editor and publisher of The Detroit News. Reach him at gmiles@detroitnews.com or (313) 222-2594.