Editorial: It’s your information; it should be free

The Detroit News

Nothing defies the notion of a government “of the people” more than denying the people access to government information that rightfully belongs to them.

Yet the trend in America is toward increasing secrecy about how and why decisions are made, the forces that influence policymaking, how money is spent, what data is collected and stored, and so on.

The Associated Press Tuesday, as part of its annual Sunshine Week coverage, reported the Obama administration again set a record in 2016 for delaying and denying Freedom of Information Act requests, spending $36.2 million on lawyer fees to keep its secrets.

The least-transparent administration ever censored files or denied their release outright in 77 percent of FOIA requests.

It’s too early to predict whether that pattern will continue under new President Donald Trump. But as part of his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington, he should make transparency a hallmark of his administration.

The general rule for complying with FOIA requests should be this simple: Unless it compromises national security or conflicts with a pending lawsuit, the information demanded should be released, and in as timely a fashion as possible.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress in the past to enshrine that principle into law, but has gone nowhere. With Republicans in control of both Congress and the White House, they should back their past complaints about Obama’s secrecy with a genuine effort to lift the veil.

The same goes for Michigan’s Legislature.

Legislation was recently reintroduced in Lansing to end the FOIA exemption for the governor and Legislature. The bill passed the House overwhelmingly in the last session, but stalled in the Senate.

This time, more than half the members of the House are again behind the bipartisan measure.

The Senate worried last time the legislation would make public constituent contacts that should be private. The new version addresses that concern, sponsors say.

This is an urgent measure to maintain confidence in state government. Michigan stood dead last in 2015 for accountability in a ranking by the Center for Public Integrity. The state’s flimsy FOIA law was cited as a primary reason.

Similarly, the state’s Open Meetings Law provides too much discretion for public boards, particularly university trustees, to carve out exemptions and meet in secret. Those holes in the law should be closed too.

And while they’re at it, lawmakers should beef up the ethics rules for both elected officials and state employees. The guidelines, too, are among the nation’s least restrictive and allow considerable opportunity for lawmakers to be improperly influenced by gifts, meals, tickets and other favors.

All of these accountability and disclosure measures work together to create a more ethical, transparent government that better serves the people’s interests.