Government at its best is transparent and accountable to the people it serves.
Yet a bill that that would increase transparency appears stalled in the Michigan Senate. Michigan voters deserve a vote on the legislation by the full Senate so they’ll have the opportunity to hold their individual senators accountable for their actions.
The bill, HB-4001, was passed in the Michigan House in an overwhelming and bipartisan fashion – 102-8.
It has been in the Senate Operations Committee since March 25, where committee Chairman Randy Richardville – also the Senate majority leader – has not brought it up for a vote. Why should legislation that was supported so strongly by both Democrats and Republicans in the House not merit at least a vote in the Senate?
The legislation would make it easier for citizens to get information about their government, including standardizing copying charges. It would require that public bodies create specific fees and guidelines, and that that fee and procedure information be provided to the public for free, such as by posting it on its website if it has one. Fringe benefits would be excluded in the formula for deciding fees for labor costs when complying with information requests.
The measure also improves the appeals process when a citizen disagrees with the denial of information sought from a public body or the amount charged for the information. And it increases the punitive damages if a court rules that a public body has arbitrarily and capriciously violated the Freedom of Information Act by refusing to release a public document or delaying the release.
Some local government officials oppose the bill, saying it’s too expensive and time-consuming to answer information requests, especially when their budgets and staffs have been cut.
But that kind of communication with citizens is part of their job, part of what citizens pay for when they fund their government bodies. Ideally, most of the information being sought would be provided without even being requested as government officials work to keep their constituents informed with better public websites and databases.
A transparent government also can be cost-effective by helping people find out how their government is spending money and whether there is waste, fraud or corruption. That kind of oversight is even more crucial now with smaller budgets.
The legislation is endorsed by the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, a non-profit, tax-exempt organization open to citizens, journalists and associations concerned with open government and freedom of information. And, remember that 102 Michigan House members voted for it, too, both Republicans and Democrats, and there were only eight “no” votes.
Michigan citizens should let their senators know it is important that their state and local governments and school districts be transparent and accountable, and that HB-4001 should be sent to the full the Senate for a vote so each senator can be held accountable on this issue.
You can find contact information for your senator on the Legislature’s website, on the bottom of the home page.
This is not something that only politicians and journalists should care about. Every person in Michigan needs strong freedom of information laws. Your government has a profound effect on your quality of life, the kind of schools you have, and the fairness of your court system. You deserve to know what’s going on.