AG advocates FOIA reform, says Michigan government has ‘locked’ out citizen scrutiny

By: - March 12, 2019 4:28 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Updated, 1:36 p.m. with comments from the governor’s office.

As legislation opening the governor’s office and Legislature to open records requests heads towards a full House vote, Attorney General Dana Nessel said this week that she’s encouraged by the bipartisan push for government transparency.

On Tuesday morning, the state House Government Operations Committee favorably reported House Bills 40074016. The proposed legislation opens the executive branch to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and establishes the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA) to administer requests for the Legislature.

Michigan is one of just two states in the nation that exempts both the governor’s office and the Legislature from FOIA.

Nessel, who spoke on Monday in Grand Haven and slammed GOP actions during the 2018 Lame Duck session, indicated that Michigan has a long way to go in improving government transparency.

That’s particularly true, as the state has received an “F” grade from the nonpartisan watchdog group the Center for Public Integrity, she noted.

“It’s an exciting time, because obviously, these are incredibly important issues — and I think nowhere more important than in Michigan right now, since last I saw we had an ‘F’ grade on transparency in this state,” Nessel said. “I’m really hopeful that it can be part of the process of taking that ‘F’ and turning it into at least a ‘C-.’ We’d like it to be an ‘A.’”

Dana Nessel at a Feb. 21, 2019 press conference in Lansing | Michael Gerstein

The bipartisan legislation that moved on Tuesday was altered from previous versions. One big change is that it would mandate that LORA retain documents for two years, up from 30 days as had previously been proposed.

That change helped garner the tepid support of Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group that believes the 30-day window would have hurt the ability of citizens and journalists to access records. The group had previously called for changes to the bills.

“While the bill package is far from perfect, and we still have some major concerns about the judicial review portion of LORA, we were glad to see the retention policy brought into alignment with that of other levels of government and is a good step forward, said Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott. “We will continue to push further changes to FOIA and LORA to expand transparency in Michigan.”

The legislation also has the support of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, as well as state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), who has led previous efforts to reform FOIA and other government transparency measures.

Jeremy Moss

“Our current open-records laws don’t actually inform the public about exactly what their elected officials do — and it’s time we catch up to the 48 other states who manage to make their transparency laws work,” Moss said in a statement. “With the governor’s support for our bipartisan efforts, we have an opportunity to bring these bills forward and open up the inner dealings of government so our constituents know what we’re doing with their time and their dollars.”

Since taking office in January, Whitmer has made a number of pushes toward enhanced transparency, including signing an executive directive to cut fees and wait times for FOIA requests and designating a “transparency advocate” for each state department.

“The Governor appreciates the hard work that has gone into this package of bills. She’s committed to transparency, which these bills achieve,” wrote Whitmer spokeswoman Tiffany Brown. “While not everything she wanted, this package is a considerable step forward and she supports it.”

Nessel said that while she’s encouraged by some of the recent efforts to increase transparency, she believes state government, in general, has fought efforts to let sunshine in.

“I feel compelled to point out that not only are we, at the state level, not opening the doors, but we are locking them with deadbolts and then we’re nailing boards across those doors,” Nessel said. “And also there’s a moat around there or something.”

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.