Opinion | Sen. Arlan Meekhof to Michigan residents: Leave politicians alone!

March 2019: Is 2019 the year Michigan joins the rest of America on public records?

As citizens around the country celebrated national Sunshine Week, from March 11-17, Michigan residents have had nothing to cheer.

A series of open records bills that would put Michigan in sync with the rest of the country are buried, once again, in the state Senate Government Operations Committee through the actions of Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-Grand Haven.

Jane Brigg-Bunting

Jane Briggs-Bunting is a board member and founding president of the nonprofit Michigan Coalition for Open Government, which promotes government accountability and transparency.

Despite unanimous, bipartisan support in the House for the Legislative Open Records Act spelled out in House Bills 4148-4157, Meekhof will not move the bills out of the committee he chairs, or even allow a vote within the committee.

Michigan is the only state in the nation in which state law exempts the governor and lieutenant governor from the requirements of Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act. In 1986, then-Attorney General Frank Kelley issued an opinion that the Michigan Legislature also is exempt from FOIA. Current Attorney General Bill Schuette’s office recently reconfirmed that opinion.

This makes Michigan a FOIA outlier among the states. It means the citizens here have no right to request and obtain records from their governor and lieutenant governor (a critical issue as the Flint water debacle unfolded) or their elected representatives.

Michigan Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-Grand Haven

City councils, township and school boards, local and county governments are all required under FOIA to provide public records — except in the case of a limited number of exemptions — to people who request them. But what is required of local public officials is not required of Michigan’s state elected officials.

The Michigan Supreme Court summarily exempted itself from FOIA’s requirements when the law was passed in 1976. The high court ruled that FOIA’s mandates violated the separation of powers of the three branches of government, and that the legislative and executive branches could not compel the judicial branch to be covered by FOIA. So now Michigan citizens have no way of making the governor, lieutenant governor, legislators or justices respond to FOIA requests.

Meekhof told a group of journalists last year they are the only ones who care about FOIA. Journalists do file many FOIA requests as part of their job to watchdog government at all levels. But everyday citizens also file FOIAs and plenty of them, as we at the Michigan Coalition for Open Government know well. [Disclosure: Bridge Editor David Zeman is on the MiCOG board]

Our FOIA is not perfect. Improvements are needed. High fees are still an issue for citizens seeking public records.

Another major loophole is in delivering records sought from public bodies. By statute, public officials are required to respond to a FOIA request within a maximum of 15 business days. Within that time period, they must respond by granting or denying the request all or in part. However, even when those records are deemed public, there is no deadline for when the officials must provide those records.

This is a loophole that some public bodies already have used to slow down turning over records. Michigan State University played this game initially with FOIA requests by media over the Larry Nassar case. Flint requesters also met, at times, with similar delays.

The bills making up the Legislative Open Records Act would be a major step forward toward making state elected officials more accountable. The current lack of accountability and transparency earned Michigan an F grade in 2015 in the Center for Public Integrity’s survey of all 50 states. Michigan should earn another F in the next survey if lawmakers don’t pass the Legislative Open Records Act.

This is Sen. Meekhof’s last term due to term limits. The hope is that, in the next session, state senators will join their House colleagues and make themselves, the governor and his lieutenant subject to FOIA — and that the new governor signs the bills into law.

Jane Briggs-Bunting is a former reporter, editor, journalism teacher and ardent FOIA advocate. She is a board member and founding president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG).

MiCOG is a nonprofit corporation founded to promote and protect transparency and accountability in government at the local, state and federal levels. For more information or to join, visit www.miopengov.org.

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Kristin M Wagar
Mon, 03/19/2018 - 3:55pm

His opinion does lead one to wonder what is hiding.

Sun, 03/18/2018 - 10:04am

Apparently someone doesn't remember he's served the public. Term limits are good for this clown.

B Tucker
Sun, 03/18/2018 - 1:30pm

Would welcome suggestions on how to move to remedy this outrageous situation

Sun, 03/18/2018 - 2:03pm

Thank you for highlighting this very important issue. The lack of transparency in MI government needs to STOP. If this is a government for the people and by the people, those voted into government work for us.

I would recommend people attend the "Bridge Solutions" conferences that are ongoing to hear and understand the "reality" of the current state of Michigan. Go see how Michigan ranks in all aspects of government, infrastructure and quality of life indicators( it is not good).

Yes, Michigan has had some difficult economic years, our economy is still not diversified, but the current administration and legislators rigged the elections through gerrymandering to get their agenda (not the people's agenda) passed.

The "business tax break" which was to attract more "business" to MI was totally misrepresented. Sure you give tax breaks to business owners who over the last several years have not let that "trickle down" to workers, but to enrich themselves. Also, what new business wants to come to a state where the infrastructure is falling apart, the educational system ranks at the bottom of all states, and state government is working in a "bubble of denial" of what is really going on.

The only ones in the past several years who have benefited from this governor are the lawyers who have engaged in lawsuits from both sides of the aisle because our government is NOT WORKING for the PEOPLE.

Mon, 03/19/2018 - 9:07am

Meekhof is correct that the primary beneficiaries of FOIA are the journalists who make a living selling stories about the records. The cost of producing the records is disproportionate to the benefit from the disclosure. There are better things to spend our tax dollars on than assembling mountains of records for FOIA requests. We already spend too much time and money doing so.

Doug McDonald
Wed, 03/21/2018 - 10:04am

The cost benefit analysis you suggest would require placing a dollar amount on the value of having a knowledgeable and informed citizenry that is empowered to make good decisions for the welfare of all. In brief: $FOI/$Democracy. At what price point do we conclude that democracy is simply not worth it?

Mary Fox
Tue, 04/17/2018 - 1:51pm

Not worth it to whom?

Mary Fox
Tue, 04/17/2018 - 1:55pm

All government docs can very simply scanned and open to the public online. Then they can do their own searches without censorship. Most of the problems and costs come from what the officials want to hide.

Mary Fox
Tue, 04/17/2018 - 1:55pm

All government docs can very simply scanned and open to the public online. Then they can do their own searches without censorship. Most of the problems and costs come from what the officials want to hide.

Kristin M Wagar
Mon, 03/19/2018 - 3:54pm

Politicians are elected by the people they are supposed to served. They do not get to do anything they want. They are not supposed to act like Tyrants. Meekof needs to learn that lesson.

John Q. Public
Tue, 03/20/2018 - 9:58am

What makes you think thet don't get to do anything they want, Kristin? They do exactly that, and the people they are supposed to serve affirm that behavior by re-electing them better than 95% of the time. They have learned well the lesson the voters are teaching.

Fri, 06/01/2018 - 4:01pm

Vote out the crooked Republicans