Our Editorial: Expand FOIA for full transparency

The Detroit News

The water crisis in Flint underscores again the need for more transparent and accountable government in Michigan, which starts with changing the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws, among other improvements.

The Legislature and governor’s office must be subject to FOIA. The exemptions they enjoy block the public from information and communications at the highest levels of state government that is rightly theirs.

Changing the law will require bipartisan support in the Legislature, and the political will to do the right thing. But Flint should provide the pressure to get lawmakers to act in the public interest.

Michigan’s laws on transparency and access are some of the weakest in the country.

The state received an F in 10 of the 13 categories of government operations that were examined in the State Integrity Investigation, a data-driven assessment of state government transparency and accountability conducted by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity.

Michigan joins Massachusetts as the only states in the country that exempt both lawmakers and the governor from FOIA.

Here the governor is explicitly exempted. Lawmakers were carved out in a 1986 opinion by then-Attorney General Frank Kelley on the original 1976 law.

Gov. Rick Snyder, as a candidate in 2010, said in an interview with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy that he’d support lifting the exemptions for both the Legislature and the governor’s office. He should be held to that pledge.

Reps. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, and Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, are working on legislation to get rid of the exemption.

Certain communications, such as medical records and other sensitive communications between lawmakers and constituents, should be protected. Separate privacy laws might already cover them, or such provisions can be worked into a new law.

But to provide blanket shelter for correspondence, phone records, appointment schedules and reports from the people is inappropriate, and both the Legislature and the governor must recognize it as such.

“Several things happened in the last year to illustrate its time to change the law,” said Lisa McGraw at the Michigan Press Association, noting last year’s Courser-Gamrat scandal, as well as the developing situations in Flint and with the Detroit Public Schools. “Getting those two exemptions removed is our highest priority right now.”

In addition, changes should be made to financial disclosure and lobbying laws. The state doesn’t require elected officials to disclose financial holdings and outside income, which protects judges, lawmakers and others from revealing a conflict they might have in a potential dispute regarding taxpayer money.

There’s no requirement for a “cooling-off” period for non-elected state officials who directly leave their jobs to lobby. At least 17 states have such restrictions on lawmakers who leave office to lobby.

Michigan’s only restriction on former lawmakers is that they’re not allowed to lobby for the remainder of the term from which they resigned. Further, lawmakers can accept “nominal” gifts from lobbyists, and the impetus is on lobbyists, not lawmakers, to report them.

The public has a right to access information that affects them, and that pertains to how their politicians are being influenced by special interests. This opportunity to leverage the various crises and scandals Michigan has endured to force a more transparent government should not be squandered.