Senate should hold vote on public records bill

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.

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Comments

Gena Olson
Tue, 11/18/2014 - 2:51pm
I wrote an email to Sen. Pappageorge. This needs to move along and get voted on in the Senate.
R.L.
Tue, 11/18/2014 - 8:44pm
If it is good legislation and you are proud of it then it should be an open book. Our Gov. ran on the platform of transparency and he has been anything but transparent. Then they wonder why people don't vote and are critical of OUR representatives. Many are about getting elected and then re elected . Enforce the laws we have and do your job regardless of personal interest. R.L.
Wed, 11/19/2014 - 11:29am
We have all become a bit cynical about a transparent government as everyone promises to make it that way and it never happens. As citizens we take some responsibility for this because we do not take opportunities to meet with our representatives and voice our views and concerns,
Duane
Wed, 11/19/2014 - 11:43am
I notice Mr. Hill mentions nothing about what should be done by those who get access to the information. What responsibility does Mr. Hill feel an agency such as Assoicated Press has when the have the information. Should they make it public or should they be allowed to pick and choose what they report and who they report about. We are seeing regularly how different news agencies make choices how who and what they report, they are precieved to pick sides and shade their reporting as such. How is that any different than what the government agencies and politicians do by disclosing what they want and don't want to. Mr. Hill seems quick to point at others while he seems to avoid responsibility for people such as himself or his former employer. It would be nice for a change when people who are so bent on one goal such as government transparency consider the responsibilities of others, such as transparency of those who want what they want. It would be interesting to hear Mr. Hill's views on transprancy of the news media and how that should be managed.
Jerry DeMaiae
Wed, 11/19/2014 - 3:45pm
I would like to remind Duane that Mr. Hill worked for a private company. We are discussing the issue of what our elected government does in our employ..
Duane
Thu, 11/20/2014 - 1:46am
Jerry, I am not clear on what you point is. For decades government regulations have required private companies to be transparent, to the point of forcing companies to do internal assessments and then providing those assessment to government compliance agents, requiring companies to identify worst case scenarios and presenting the three worst possibilities to the public. Why shouldn't we consider the actions of those who are given government information and consider their having some transparency? My disappointment is how Mr. Hill seems to not consider that those he wants tp get the government information have any responsibilities or accountability for what they do with the information. If a person drives a car they have certain responsibilites, if the media makes false remarks about a politician or government agency they have no accountability, why? I would at least to hear a conversation about responsibility and accountability for those who recieve the information. Is government and politician responsibility and accountability part of the justification for information access laws? Why shouldn't we be concerned about those getting the information don't act arbitrarily and capriciously with it? Mr. Hill seems to only have a very narrow view, he wants what he wants and seems to have little capacity to consider the unintended consequences of what he wants. Have you heard him mention anything but what he wants on this issue? Personnally I would like to see some consiration of public posting of such information requests and the information provided. that would seem to be a truer form of transparency. As best I can tell anyone that requested the informaton could keep it from the public or could us it or any part of it as them deemed appropriate.
Duane
Sat, 11/22/2014 - 1:49am
I must apologize to Mr. Hill, I stereotyped him by his article and I failed to recognize he had never gained an appreciation of who benefits most from transparency. Mr. Hill seems to presume that government and those in government spend their time generating “waste, fraud or corruption.” He seems to believe that the only value of transparency is to catch those who are wasteful, perpetrating a fraud on the public, and are corrupt. He only seems to see the media as the ones who know best how to use the information that they ask for in the name of transparency. That shows a limited understanding of transparency and its value. I learned from a former employer that people are honorable and want to work in an ethical environment and want a culture that supports those practices. Recognizing those expectations in the people in our organization drove efforts to find ways to weave personal and professional honor and ethics into the fabric of the company culture. As I work on such activities I learned that honor and ethics flourish best in a transparent organizational culture, that honor and ethics shine where the tools that facilitate transparency are designed to be used by those who take the actions and generate the information, that those with the desired ethics and honor are more effective when they have the tools of transparency, they take greater pride in their work and methods, they are more creative, more willing to share and collaborate with others. Transparency is a means for them to take more control of what they do. Transparency is a direct benefit to those who are most transparent in what they do and how they do it. Its also obvious that the organization and those it serves benefit from suh transparency. Another reality is that such transparency is most frustrating to the media, to compliance agencies, and to those who are ‘professional’ detractors. I apologize to Mr. Hill for my initial reaction, I had presumed he understood or had at least had thought about transparency from different perspectives, that he had thought about who benefits most from transparency and who benefits least. It seems he was so focused only one prespective he frame transparency as only a tool for playing ‘I gotcha’ and ignored how it can be a tool for those that the media and others are trying to score the ‘I gotcha’s’ on. This re-affirms my view that before making a pronouncement have a conversation and listen to the perspectives of others on an issue/problem. Learn to recognize that it isn’t about having the answer, but asking the right questions and listening to other people’s ‘answers’ before you choose an ‘answer’ to apply. I assumed too much and didn’t take the time recognize Mr. Hills limited experience, for that I apologize.