For Sunshine Week, more governmental transparency, please

If you’ve been watching what goes on in Washington and some statehouses across the country, you might wonder if there’s any issue that everyone should be able to agree on whether they are conservative or liberal or libertarian, Democrat or Republican, pro-this or anti-that.

There is: It’s the need for transparency in all levels of government.

As we observe Sunshine Week in Michigan and around the country to encourage openness in government, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) is urging citizens and public officials to seek transparency in the operations of their local and state governments, their schools and universities, their federal government and their courts.

You can do this by supporting Michigan legislation that would amend the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to make government information more accessible by limiting fees and discouraging delays.

Or by supporting a bill that a Republican lawmaker proposed to create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals. Or by supporting a bill that two Democratic lawmakers proposed to expand FOIA coverage for the legislative branch so it is more in line with the broader coverage that applies to the executive branch.

MiCOG -- a non-profit, tax-exempt organization open to citizens, journalists and associations concerned with open government and freedom of information – urges passage of that pending legislation.

You also can make a difference by letting your local officials -- from the mayor to school board members -- know that it’s important to you to know how your tax dollars are being spent and how they are making decisions about classrooms or parks or roads or snow removal or trash collection.

It’s important for you to know this so you can independently judge the soundness of those decisions, so you can suggest your ideas for improvements in programs or government actions, so you can evaluate government officials’ performance, and so you can guard against corruption and conflicts of interest.

You can help by asking questions of your government officials and by encouraging openness. Politicians and government officials are more likely to take the trouble to create open systems and practices if they know it is important to their constituents.

Tell them that your assessment of their performance includes their record on open government.

Let them know this should not be a partisan issue, and that you want information regardless of which party or group is in power. If you’re in New Jersey, you don’t have to be a Democrat to want to know more about a big bridge closure in that state. In Michigan and Louisiana, you don’t have to be a Republican to want information surrounding the corruption charges that resulted in convictions of mayors in New Orleans and Detroit.

Michigan has plenty of tough transparency and accountability challenges ahead, including how courts handle public access and fees for electronic records, whether juvenile criminal records should be public or secret, and how much secrecy should be allowed in new mental health courts, including convict records and data revealing rates of recidivism for the program.

Remember that you have a stake in Michigan’s freedom of information laws. How much you are permitted to know about your government directly affects the quality of your government, your schools, your courts, your job, your freedom and your life.

Charles Hill is a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and a former Michigan bureau chief for The Associated Press. To join or find out more about MiCOG, visit its website, find MiCOG on Facebook or follow the coalition on Twitter at @miopengov.

Bridge welcomes guest columns from a diverse range of people on issues relating to Michigan and its future. The views and assertions of these writers do not necessarily reflect those of Bridge or The Center for Michigan.

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Comments

Duane
Sat, 03/15/2014 - 12:53am
Mr. Hill, You tell us what you want, why wouldn’t you tell us why you want it so we can decide for ourselves? Why don’t tell us what you feel needs to be more transparent or is this just another political ploy we have heard before? What do you think we should do with what becomes more transparent or should we leave it to you and the media to decide? What do you think will or should change with added transparency? If nothing will change with transparency why should we make it an issue? I notice you fail to mention any possible unintended consequences for all this transparency, have you even considered the possibility? Are you so focused on what you want that you don’t care what the consequences can be to others? You are very specific in telling us what to do, why can’t you be that specific of what should be transparent and why? I do believe in transparency, I can tell you why and what and even some ways it could be used. I believe is what should be talked about, not simply doing what one person or a handful wants. It seems you see transparency as results, I see transparency as a view on how the decisions are made. “…you can independently judge the soundness of those decisions, so you can suggest your ideas for improvements in programs or government actions, so you can evaluate government officials’ performance, and so you can guard against corruption and conflicts of interest.” These are already public and will not change because of transparency, for government decision, programs, actions, performance are all results that are available. As for corruption, that will always be done away from public view even with transparency because it is already illegal. I don’t know why you want transparency, but you have raised more doubts for me with what you have said and not said.
William C. Plumpe
Sun, 03/16/2014 - 2:59am
Duane--- In the spirit of honest and frank discussion let me tell you that you are wrong. American government was never designed or intended to be a pure democracy where the vote of the people was the be all and end all. If you think that you are not reading your history correctly. We are a representative democracy a republic rather than a pure democracy. The idea is to elect officials who act on our behalf. The country's founders never intended a pure vote of the people government. Maybe it is time to change that but that is not how it is now and would require major changes like a Constitutional Convention. Why I don't like part time legislatures and term limits is that it limits the effectiveness of the representative democratic process. So by limiting the representative process we are limiting democracy and in my book that is bad not good. If you want more control over what happens in the Legislatures at all levels I advise that you: 1) Vote in every election 2) Keep expressing your opinions 3) Take time to address your Legislators directly 4) Get actively involved on the regular basis with the candidate of your choice 5) Push for more accountability. For example instead of a part time Legislature require legislators to show up on the floor of the Chamber a minimum number of days each year. Otherwise they get docked pay. Remember that you get what you pay for and that legislating is a professional job just like being a doctor or a lawyer. Would you want a part time heart surgeon or criminal defense attorney? No you would want an experienced veteran who knew what they were doing. Same thing with the democratic process. Think about that and get back to me. Enough said.
Duane
Sun, 03/16/2014 - 10:19pm
William, I agree we have a representative form of government, and with an ever improving access to information it seems to be a most effective way to govern. However, I do not believe that the individual voters should be excluded from the process in deference to pseudo ‘expertise’ elected officials gain based on longevity. What knowledge and skills do elected officials develop by simply holding office for an extended ? Are they like doctors or mechanics that hone their eye to hand coordination with practice, do they develop technical experience in writing or reading legislation or regulations that the public can’t gain not being in office? Do they somehow learn to negotiate behind closed doors rather than in public forums? Do they develop personal relationships that transcend ideological and technical elements of government actions? What is it that a 10, 20, or 30 years legislator gain that a private citizen can learn without holding office? I would rather have the legislators read the laws they are voting on then sit in their seats on the floor of the Capital. I would rather have them working with government agencies to develop performance metrics for agenies and programs rather than trying to place blame for what isn’t working. I would rather have them developing new ways to write laws so they included the purpose/impact the law/program is supposed to achieve with performance metrics and actions if performance ‘milestones’ aren’t met then playing for political coups (like an Indian coup in battle) on the Chamber floor. “Would you want a part time heart surgeon or criminal defense attorney?” This makes it sound like you somehow feel a person working less than full time is inferior. My experience has been the number of hours a person works does not lessen how well they think or what they know. I wonder what you think of the capabilities of volunteers who work for no monetary compensation. I would surely accept a doctor or lawyer who has the proven skills and wants to lower their stress or be with their family more by working part time provide their services to me.
Denise
Sun, 03/16/2014 - 6:20am
FOIA can be a useful tool for citizens, however, it can also be a weapon that cripples. I prefer a transparency standard, such as the the school systems budget being openly posted, meeting minutes posted, documents posted that are FOIA eligible. The auto industry has a "paper trail" for accountability, all government entities should do the same. It's the taxpayers dollars.
Duane
Sun, 03/16/2014 - 10:25pm
Denise, "FOIA can be a useful tool for citizens, however, it can also be a weapon that cripples." With that comment you show you have been more thoughtful on the issue that Mr. Hill did in his whole article. I agree that govrnment should have a paper trail for accountability like industry and there were standards for transparency established. Those would help the public get value from transparency, something Mr. Hill failed to talk about.
Sun, 03/23/2014 - 7:33pm
Duane and Denise: I was in office as a trustee for 4 years and learned a considerable amount about government in that short time. I won’t go into detail just direct you to my website that I have supported for over 3 years. I have done this to try and inform the resident’s of the township on issues that should be of interest to them. My website is www.wacousta.org please spend some time and view and listen to the contents on my home page. Also in monthly meeting for Nov 2013 listen to and read my meeting summary comments on the public hearing for the 2014 budget. Dale Westrick Still working to keep the residents informed!!!