Michigan needs more government transparency in light of Flint

When he signed into law last year a bill making the first big changes in decades to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, Gov. Rick Snyder said it would remind government employees that they “are working on behalf of our residents, who should not be discouraged from learning about how that government is serving them.”

Or not serving them, as exemplified by the government foul-ups that led to the devastating lead contamination of the public water supply in Flint.

To his credit, Snyder has released many of his offices emails involving the disaster. But he didn’t release all of his administration’s correspondence about Flint – and he doesn’t have to. Nor do state legislators have to reveal whatever responses they had to the unfolding crisis, which has put all of Michigan in an ugly spotlight and undermined the state’s greatest natural asset, an abundant and ostensibly safe water supply.

This is Sunshine Week, observed nationally each March to remind the public of the importance of open government and the free flow of information between public officials and the public they serve. Amid the still unfolding news from Flint, it’s a good week to also observe that much of what the public has learned about this health crisis was exposed by journalists and public-interest citizens’ organizations, not volunteered by the governments that created it.

While the changes Snyder signed in 2015 improved fees and response times for government officials to handle requests made under FOIA, the 1976 law still includes exemptions for the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor and state legislators. For former business executive Snyder, this is akin to giving a CEO authority to stonewall investors and shareholders about how business is being conducted, even when the company is failing. For legislators, who so often run on promises of openness and transparency, this means that once they are hired by the voters, they don’t have to tell them why or how they do things that can affect every aspect of living and working in Michigan.

With FOIA exemptions covering this much of state government, the process of making law and public policy in Michigan is about as clear to the public as, well, tap water in Flint.

No wonder an annual review by the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan dead last among the 50 states in transparency and accountability, citing a “lack of effective disclosure rules for officials in nearly all facets of state government” and loopholes through which “big spenders can dramatically influence an election without leaving a trace.”

It is common sense that people behave differently, and generally better, when they know they are being watched. It is a sad fact that criminals do most of their dirty work at night, out of the sunshine.

If you care about preventing another Flint-level disaster in Michigan, one thing you can do is contact your state senator, representative and the governor’s office to say that you want them to be as accountable in their jobs as you are to your employer or, indeed, your family.

Unfortunately, even as Flint remains in crisis, legislation is brewing in Lansing to create even more FOIA exemptions, these involving police videos and information exchanges between utilities and government officials about vital infrastructure installations that can affect public lands and policy.

The Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a nonprofit advocacy organization for government accountability, would prefer instead that the Legislature act on another planned bill to end the FOIA exemptions for the governor’s office and the Legislature.

Now, with spring in the air but lead still in the water in Flint, is the time for more sunshine, not more secrecy, in Lansing. The people of Flint may never again fully trust their government. But if something good can ever come out of something so bad, it should be a new commitment to open government.

To learn more about the work of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, visit miopengov.org. You also can follow MiCOG on Facebook at MIOpenGov and on Twitter @miopengov.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Comments

Duane
Tue, 03/15/2016 - 3:51pm
Mr. Dzwonkowski seems to only see transparency as 20-20 hindsight, as a tool for the 'blame-game' or 'I gotcha'. He says nothing about how it would have prevented the events in Flint, the skin game of officials in Lansing, demise of Detroit, how it will improve our roads. If anything the impact of the 'transparency' efforts is to drive private/personal dealings deeper into the shadows, it is driving people to avoid creating records whether electronic, paper, or verbal with witnesses. If transparency is to provide value it needs to be about the process leading up to decision rather than the reconstruction following decisions. It needs to help the public not just for media headlines or political campaign ads. It should be about creating changes so we can see how the government is performing before it creates a crisis, so we can see what results government is delivery not media articles about failures, so we can see successes and the how’s and whys they happen. The Flint story on Bridge is a good example, Emails and politics, nothing about science and mechanics of the purification and delivery of water so people can ask important questions of their potable water suppliers. I don’t see Mr. Dzwonkowski making a case for how transparency has improved our state, other than creating a new political buzz word, 'transparency'. As good as Gov Snyder has been with requested information, I don’t see it has changed governing in Michigan. If 'transparency' is to change government/politics in Michigan, it should be about getting the public better informed [before the event], public better engaged, and creating new opportunities to get them participating. Mr. Dzwonkowski doesn't seem to see that. He seems to have his interpetation of 'transparency' and is not interested about effective transparency is proactive, integrated into everyday government activities, and how it can work in changing how we are governed by focusing how and why things are done and the results they deliver.
David W
Wed, 03/16/2016 - 11:24am
So because Ron Dzwonkowski did not write his article just as you would have, does that make what he said wrong? I cannot believe the argument you make! Yes, the work of our Michigan government and its agencies should be open before and, it should be open after. If this openness drives our government and, the people who work for the State of Michigan, underground, well then this kind of testifies to how poorly our government represents the people of Michigan.
Duane
Wed, 03/16/2016 - 6:15pm
David, Yes! It shows a lack of knowledge of practical application of effective transparency. Mr. Dzwonkowski portrays 'transparency' as simple political panacea, that ‘magic bullet’ requiring no effort on the public's or government part that will change all of Michigan and make government and politicians so much better. My fear is that if his ‘transparency’ is accepted, all we need is access to the electronic, paper, and verbal exchanges in government we will be able to trust government and elected officials, and nothing changes except the volume of finger pointing that the needed public trust will fall deeper and grow wider and will be even harder to rebuild. Effective ‘transparency requires that it is integrated into the everyday activities [not a layer on top], that each person has to work at it and personally benefit from it, it is part of a process that is verified regularly, it is not a burden, it must be a tool for all to use. As for your belief that “…how poorly our government represents the people of Michigan” if the people you want to target would stop needing to create the documents you want access to, causes me to wonder if you considered that the people you doubt are working hard spending long hours doing their job to the current expectations would have to add to their everyday work defending or be concerned with defending themselves for something they said or did years ago, being publicly harassed in the media, and having to absorb that added stress. I wonder how you would react, how most people would react, would you try to avoid being put under such stress? Reality is that the easiest and immediately practical way to respond is to avoid creating a need for a record for others to scrutinize, especially records having no other value than for others to play ‘I Gotcha’ with. I believe in transparency, I know how it can work and how it can be abused, I know how it can be a personal benefit to each person involved, I know it takes work on each participants part, and it isn't about ‘I Gotcha’. I would like to see a conversation that involves people who have been involved in transparency programs that have been effective and beneficial to all. I think it would be quite enlightening for people to hear what it takes, how it is beneficial, how it is sustained, and how it improves decision making and results. Would you participate in such a conversation?
Observer
Tue, 03/15/2016 - 5:35pm
Mr. Dzwonkowski, in his complaint about the government's failures in the Flint water episode, says, "Or not serving them, as exemplified by the government foul-ups that led to the devastating lead contamination of the public water supply in Flint." In his plea for more transparency, he fails to note that MDEQ, the Department of Health, other state agencies and the city of Flint were all fully subject to FOIA. Was that of any value in preventing the incompetence, bureaucratic turf wars and stupidity that caused this tragedy? He goes on to say, "It is common sense that people behave differently, and generally better, when they know they are being watched. It is a sad fact that criminals do most of their dirty work at night, out of the sunshine." This implies that state policy makers and/or employees acted with malicious intent. Does anybody seriously believe that? Does being watched make people more competent? I hope that Mr. Dzwonkowski remembers his assertion that "people behave differently, and generally better, when they know they are being watched." when surveillance cameras are being discussed. Surely, people have privacy rights, but they have no expectation of privacy in public spaces, particularly when public safety is at stake.
R.L.
Tue, 03/15/2016 - 6:12pm
Transparency in State Govt. is a joke. Two attorneys hired for $ 249000 each so there would be no requirement for a public hearing If you spend 250,000 you need a hearing. Explain that to the public. R.L.
Sun, 03/20/2016 - 7:14am
Transparency in government on all levels is the least that should come out of the Flint tragedy and the obvious need for elected officials in powerful positions to be held accountable for what they did or did not do or what they are doing or not doing per the expectations of their constituents. The MDEQ was already known to have organizational issues before Snyder took office. The fact that there is no record of Snyder making sure that the state department, under his authority, was properly prepared to take such an action as the switching of water sources in Flint- confirms or makes Snyder even more culpable. Aside from being the GOV/CEO and inherently poised to accept the responsibility of those working beneath him, we can see a lot of what he didn't do, but should have done. Perhaps, those with valid concerns that were communicated to the governor, or when valid concerns via media were publicly communicated- the governor did or didn't do things he should or should not have- which subsequent action or non actions were reasonable, and why did or didn't he do something else? Aren't these questions necessary avoiding a subsequent major tragedy? The people deserve all of the facts- any other assertion that would justify secrecy, is not acceptable. Particularly, after the performance of Snyder in the course of the Flint tragedy. Unfortunately, although not as immediately and obviously as tragic, the list of anti-democratic, oppressive actions taken by the majority of lawmakers along with Snyder are beyond troubling and conclusively demonstrate the need for more scrutiny of our legislature and executive offices.
Duane
Mon, 03/21/2016 - 5:02pm
Jamie, It seems you only see transparency as a 'club' to scare government people into working smarter or better. Would that work on you? With all that we have read in the media do you see anything that even suggests how things will change other the making people less likely to communicate to others? Do you think risk of having all your conversation and action made public by FOIA would make you do you job better or more effectively? I have to say that it is not easy to know that what you say and do will be scrutinized by the government and they will tell you up front you could be at risk for criminal action if they find something they don't like. The reality if you want transparency to improve things it must be integrated into the everyday and it must provide value for all concerned/involved. To help you appreciate that companies have been dealing with a government imposed version of FOIA since the early 1970s, it is called government regulations. When the government shows up to inspect they will even tell you before they look at anything that you are liable for criminal action and you company for citations, fines, and even risk of shutdown of operations.