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.