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End governor’s, state lawmakers’ exemptions to FOIA

The Detroit News

In Michigan, transparency in government ends at the Capitol building, where the governor and Legislature have conveniently exempted themselves from the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The exemption gives lawmakers and the governor broad discretion in what information they release to the public, and what they keep secret.

That should change. As elected officials, the governor and legislators work for the public. Very little they do should be blocked from public view, and when information is held private, it should be for very well defined reasons.

The issue came up again when The Detroit News was denied access by the House Business Office to the entire draft report and records gathered in the investigation into whether Republican Reps. Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat abused taxpayer resources to cover-up their extramarital affair.

The investigation was conducted with taxpayer dollars and, at least at this time, is not a criminal probe. The information has been turned over to a House committee for a decision on whether to begin expulsion proceedings.

This process is very likely to set precedent for future expulsion actions. If the House is not completely forthcoming with the evidence to support removal of the lawmakers, it will call into question the fairness of the process.

Making the findings public will not compromise the investigation. There’s no justifiable reason for holding it in secret.

But the Legislature does not need a justification because of its FOIA exemption.

When lawmakers excluded themselves from FOIA, the reason put forward was that they did not want correspondences with their constituents to be subject to freedom of information requests.

But that’s precisely the sort of thing that should be public. Communications between local officials and the public are subject to disclosure under FOIA, and that should be the case at the state level as well.

Michigan joins Massachusetts as one of just two states that exempt lawmakers and the governor from FOIA. The initial law, passed in 1976, did not specifically carve out the Legislature, but an opinion by then-Attorney Gen. Frank Kelley in 1986 determined that lawmakers are not covered.

Bills have been introduced over the years to bring all elected officials under the FOIA umbrella. But they’ve gone nowhere.

Michigan’s exemption is not a blanket exception; documents relating to financial transactions must be made public. But it is broad enough to shelter correspondence, phone records, appointment schedules and reports.

It’s worth noting that Republican lawmakers have introduced legislation that would subject the Detroit Institute of Arts to FOIA, since it collects taxpayer money.

If sunshine is good for the DIA, it certainly would be beneficial for the Capitol.