Today, the Michigan House of Representatives unanimously passed a set of bills that would strengthen Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act laws. They would bring the governor’s office and Legislature under FOIA, ending Michigan’s status as one of just two states that currently exempt both.
Why does this matter? Because in the dark, the government can and will do whatever it wants. When the Flint water crisis was unfolding, citizens were unable to demand the governor release all documents related to the decision to switch Flint’s water source and how to deal with its disastrous consequences. Gov. Snyder eventually did release a stack of documents, but that was out of his own initiative, and there’s no way to know whether he released all the documents or not. That’s because there is no law in our state that would have compelled him to do it.
Similarly, there’s no requirement for the Legislature to do the same.
But that may be about to change. While Senate Leader Arlan Meekhof, a Republican, has said he is against expanding FOIA, not everyone else there agrees. Among Michigan Republican senators ready to buck their leader is Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge):
Sens. Tonya Schuitmaker and Rick Jones on Wednesday introduced legislation that would open the governor’s office and Legislature to public records requests by journalists and other interested citizens, lifting dual exemptions allowed by one other state.
The state House is scheduled to vote on similar bipartisan bills Thursday as part of “Sunshine Week,” a national celebration of access to public records. But with Meekhof posing a potential roadblock, Jones said it was important to show support in the Senate as well.
“I have a great deal of respect for the majority leader and his opinions,” said Jones, R-Grand Ledge. “We simply wanted to make our opinions very clear, and we’ll see if we have any support from the (GOP) caucus.”
Senate Democrats are already on board.
“I think we should be FOIA-able just like every other part of government,” (Sen. Curtis) Hertel (D-Meridian Township) said. He had not yet reviewed the new Senate legislation but explained that he was subject to public records requests when he worked as an Ingham County commissioner.
“Is it difficult? Yeah. Is it always fun? No. But it’s really our responsibility,” he said. “When we’re spending the public’s money and we’re on the public’s time, whatever we do should be accessible to the public.”