Opinion | Open access to government creates a stronger democracy

Wes Maurer

Wesley H. Maurer Jr. serves on the board of directors of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and is publisher of St. Ignace News and Mackinac Island Town Crier.

The need for an open and transparent government has never been more apparent as in these times of fakery, lies and deceit permeating our daily conversations and the rancor stemming from overly partisan politics throughout our state. 

Citizens, reporters and even elected officials depend on information held by government to verify facts, detect corruption and identify the special interests that influence our politicians and public servants. Open governmental meetings let us witness the workings of our public bodies and participate in important discussions that affect our everyday lives. 

Too often, citizen attempts to obtain public information are thwarted by delays or outright denials, held beyond reach by exorbitant charges levied for retrieval and redaction of documents, or hidden by exemptions allowed by our open government statutes. 

Michigan’s lack of transparency in government has been well-known among watchdog groups for some time. Our state ranks among the lowest in the nation for freedom of information and was placed dead last for openness in a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity. 

Closed government in Michigan is buoyed by inadequate open government statutes that are supposed to protect citizen access to their government. Processes to obtain information can be humiliating and expensive. Public servants can appear to view constituents as bothersome or threatening when they seek information. It is ironic that these public institutions, their employees and, in many cases, the documents themselves were funded by the taxes paid by these very citizens.

Special interests and corruption are the biggest impediments to open government in a democratic society. But making Michigan government more transparent will require the concerted involvement of all citizens and public officials, and this week is a good time for us all to make such a commitment.

This is Sunshine Week, a national, nonpartisan effort to highlight the importance of openness in government. Sunshine Week is supported in Michigan by a host of public and governmental organizations, including the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG), a broad-based nonprofit committed to securing, protecting, expanding and maintaining the people’s right to know what goes on within its governments. MiCOG supports the sunshine laws that cast light on our government. 

Michigan continues to be the only state with a Freedom of Information statute that excludes the governor and executive office. It is one of just a handful of states to exempt its legislature from the provisions of the law. Last year at this time, MiCOG praised proposed legislation seeking to remedy that, and while the amendment was passed by the House, it remains stalled in the Senate. It needs to become law.

MiCOG also supports a proposed Open Government Commission in Michigan that could make the resolution of citizen appeals and concerns of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings laws faster and more cost-efficient.

Supporting sunshine laws is our ongoing duty. We need to let our elected officials know that we desire open and accessible government. Sunshine in government leads to stronger ethics and a stronger democracy.

Learn more about what citizens can do to promote open government in Michigan by going to the Sunshine Week website or to MiCOG.

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