Our Editorial: Err on side of transparency

The Detroit News

It’s a natural instinct of public officials to keep public information away from the public. That’s why Michigan has strict rules governing open meetings and access to information.

When those rules are bent to accommodate narrow situations, the tendency is for the exception to quickly become the rule. Take public universities, for example.

Fifteen years ago the state Supreme Court ruled that because the state Constitution says “formal” meetings of university boards must be public, the schools were OK to meet behind closed doors to discuss presidential searches, which were not considered formal sessions.

Since then, the boards, particularly the University of Michigan regents, have stretched that exemption to cover almost any issue they just don’t feel like discussing publicly. Secret meetings have become routine at UM. The regents do the bulk of their business behind closed doors.

That’s why Rep. Martin Howrylak, R-Troy, is offering legislation to remove the word “formal” from the Constitution.

It’s an uphill fight, as amending the Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate, but worthwhile.

The universities currently can say they are following the wording of the state Constitution. But they certainly aren’t following its intent.

The example of how universities have twisted a specific exemption into a free pass to skirt the Open Meetings Act should inform lawmakers as they consider a separate proposal to cut off public access to certain information about oil and gas pipelines and high-powered electric lines.

The bill from Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, is intended to deprive would-be terrorists of information about critical infrastructure. But it could just as easily be used to protect the corporations that own those lines from disclosing safety and environmental records, information the public should have access to.

Congress, in 200,2 exempted oil, gas and electrical infrastructure from federal disclosure requirements, also citing terrorism. But that legislation allows access to information about pipeline safety. Heise’s bill does not.

Also pending in the Legislature is a new bill from Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, to exempt certain deliberations of the Michigan Compensation Commission and Employment Relations Commission from the Open Meetings Act.

The trend line here is not positive. Each little window that is closed to public information makes government that much less accountable to the people it serves.

Howrylak has the right idea. Instead of carving out more exemptions to transparency, lawmakers should be working to close the existing loopholes. His bill should get broad support, and the other efforts to limit access should get considerable scrutiny.