Transparency in government might sound like a yawn of a topic in usual times. But these are not usual times.
Today, open government laws are truly about life-and-death matters. We continue to fight the deadly coronavirus pandemic, struggle to come to grips with policing practices that discriminate against people of color and debate the election process that is so key to the survival of a democratic society.
This week is the 16th anniversary of Sunshine Week. It was established in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors, now called the News Leaders Association. Simply stated, it’s your right to know.
Across the country, citizens and journalists are using open government laws at the local, state and federal levels to request data on nursing home deaths from COVID-19, release investigations of police shootings, and provide information on federally funded small business loans. These are needed efforts to shed light on actions of public bodies.
Close to home, the Lansing State Journal used the Michigan Freedom of Information Act to calculate the high cost to Michigan State University over the Larry Nassar scandal, and to shed light on the asphyxiation death in the Lansing city jail where officials initially did not release any information on the prisoner’s demise.
The Detroit Free Press exposed a practice of the Michigan State Police using encrypted messaging that allows communication that is out of the reach of the Freedom of Information Act. Why is this wrong? People acting on the public’s behalf need to be transparent and accountable.
Just this month, Detroit newspapers used public records requests to uncover a nearly $156,000 separation agreement for a former state department head.
And in September, Bridge magazine and a coalition of media and policy organizations successfully called for immediate release of the location of coronavirus outbreaks in schools, which Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration was initially reluctant to disclose. Waiting for the FOIA process would have taken too long, but the law was important in establishing the public’s right to know.
While the laws help transparency, they need to be stronger. Michigan was ranked dead last for openness in a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity.
Michigan’s 1976 Freedom of Information Act did not go far enough. It exempted the Legislature and governor’s office and, in the subsequent 45 years, the Legislature has failed to correct that mistake.
Michigan is one of two states exempting the governor’s office and one of a handful exempting the Legislature. A 2022 ballot proposal under discussion could change that if the Legislature fails, again, to extend it.
A package of bills called the Legislative Open Records Act could be approved by the House this week. It would expand FOIA to include the Legislature and governor but would also offer many loopholes. Similar legislation died over the last six years without a hearing in the Senate.
More from LSJ opinion
The Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a broad group of news and policy organizations, supports the expansion of FOIA. It also calls for an Open Government Commission. This would lead to faster and more cost-efficient resolutions to citizens appeals and concerns regarding open government laws.
In addition, the pandemic lessons learned about remote access to public meetings should be permanently added to the Open Meeting Act to allow citizens to interact with their leaders at public meetings.
Sunshine Week is a time to celebrate openness, and also examine the parts of government that operate in the dark.
It’s clear: We need more sunshine in Michigan.
Judy Putnam retired as a news columnist from the Lansing State Journal in 2020. She serves on the boards of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and the Mid-Michigan chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.