After years of legislative inaction, ballot initiative launched to expand FOIA

By: - March 16, 2021 6:05 pm

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

Mark Brewer, longtime Michigan elections lawyer and former Michigan Democratic Party chair, told the Advance Tuesday that a new ballot initiative expanding the state’s 1976 Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) represents the best opportunity yet to achieve significant transparency.

Michigan is one of just two states where neither the governor nor Legislature are subject to open record laws.

Progress Michigan, a liberal advocacy group, announced details of a 2022 ballot initiative to expand FOIA. Brewer crafted the language and attended the virtual press event Tuesday. The initiative would “apply the full weight of FOIA” to both the Legislature and governor’s office, sponsors said.

“[It’s] about good, open and transparent government,” Brewer said. “People just deserve more disclosure, whether they are Democrats or Republicans.”

The aim is to have the initiative on the November 2022 ballot. To get the proposal before voters, Progress Michigan must collect at least 342,000 valid signatures to be filed by late spring 2022.

The announcement comes during Sunshine Week, which is March 14 to 20. Established in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, now called the News Leaders, the event has been carried out in Lansing for 16 years and has been promoted by the Michigan Press Association and others.

There have been several unsuccessful attempts in recent years in the Legislature to expand FOIA. Last term, bipartisan bills passed the House and a Senate committee, but they did not clear the full Senate. Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) told the Advance the chamber ran out of time due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bills have been reintroduced in both the House and Senate this year. They have cleared a House committee and will proceed to the full body for a vote: 

  • House Bill 4392, sponsored by Rep. Ann Bollin (R-Brighton), and HB 4386, sponsored by Rep. Tyrone Carter (D-Detroit), would subject the governor and lieutenant governor to FOIA. 
  • HB 4383, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.), creates the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA), an offshoot of FOIA specifically for the Legislature.
  • HB 4383, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Berman (R-Commerce Twp.), creates the Legislative Open Records Act (LORA), an offshoot of FOIA specifically for the Legislature. 
  • HB 4385, 4387 and 4388 – sponsored by Reps. Annette Glenn (R-Midland), Posthumus and Pat Outman (R-Six Lakes), respectively – set the fees and procedures for requesting records, as well as the process for appealing a denial.
  • HB 4390, sponsored by Rep. Darrin Camilleri (D-Dearborn), establishes that appeals for legislative records would go to the nonpartisan Legislative Council Administrator rather than going through the courts.
  • HB 4384, sponsored by Rep. Mark Tisdel (R-Rochester Hills), calls for the appointment of LORA coordinators who would be tasked with processing requests.
  • HB 4389 and HB 4391, sponsored by Reps. Jim Haadsma (D-Battle Creek) and Beau LaFave (R-Iron Mountain), would provide exemptions for some records.

The bills are mirrored in the Senate as SB 232 through SB 241.

Progress Michigan argues that package would subject the Legislature to a lesser standard of transparency than is required by FOIA. 

“The LORA bills proposed in the Legislature are what you would get if you ordered FOIA reform from The people of Michigan have already waited far too long for real FOIA reform — and we’re done waiting,” said Lonnie Scott, Progress Michigan executive director. “We don’t need more lip service to transparency from lawmakers who aren’t willing to back their words up with actions, and we don’t need half-measures like LORA that give the Legislature special treatment instead of holding them to the same standards every other level of government is expected to follow.”

Historically, bills designed to impact the issue have been full of “loopholes,” Brewer argued. But he said the Progress Michigan ballot measure is simple.

“[The initiative] is straightforward as FOIA applies to them,” said Brewer, whose work in Lansing goes back to 1995. “You go to court if you don’t like what the governor or the Legislature says to you [about a FOIA request]. It’s a night and day difference.”


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Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman writes about Southeast Michigan, history and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on Black life in Detroit.