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Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer lays down ethical rules for her administration

Update: Is 2019 the year Michigan joins the rest of America on public records?
Related: Gov. Whitmer seeks speedy public record response, but not yet for her office

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed six rules outlining ethical standards for public officials in her new administration Wednesday, two days after taking the oath of office.

The directives include banning employees from using private email for public business (and vice versa) and from receiving political contributions inside government buildings. They also require employees to report “irregularities” involving public money and more.  

“State government must be open, transparent and accountable to Michigan taxpayers,” Whitmer said in a statement. “To continue to earn public confidence, we must set good examples and act ethically at all times.”

Related: Michigan Gov. Whitmer sets ‘equal pay’ rules to boost women in state hiring
Related: Whitmer: State workers must report health threats, and bosses must listen​

Executive directives are rules created by the governor that apply to state departments and agencies in the executive branch. Among other things, Whitmer’s directives (2019-2 through 2019-7):

Michigan government is beset by dismal levels of public transparency.

With few avenues for the public to learn about officials’ financial conflicts of interest, moneyed groups’ influence over elections with few reporting requirements, and extremely limited public records laws, Michigan has been ranked last among the states for government accountability and transparency.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson cited the 2015 ranking in a statement Thursday supporting Whitmer’s rules: “I wholeheartedly support Governor Whitmer for sending a message and more importantly, ensuring that transparency in state government will be a top priority going forward,” she said. Both Benson and Whitmer are Democrats.

Multiple attempts to increase transparency have failed in the Republican-controlled state Legislature. Most recently, a bipartisan package of bills would have opened lawmakers up to the Freedom of Information Act. The bills passed unanimously in the House only to die in the Senate.

Experts in government transparency told Bridge that Whitmer’s rules themselves aren’t a significant shift away from the state’s systemic problems with transparency, but they indicate that the new governor may make ethical reforms a priority for her time in office.

“It looks like some of these are steps in making things a little more transparent and laying down a new marker on what to expect,” said Kytja Weir, State Politics Editor at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan national investigative journalism outlet. “It will be really interesting to see what she’ll do in the rest of her term.”

If the Center for Public Integrity were to do its 2015 rankings of state transparency again, these directives may help the score go up slightly, she said. “But, frankly, Michigan could only go up.”

“It’s positive to bring attention to the issues of transparency and accountability and ethics, but there are a lot more substantive reforms that could be put in place on these issues,” said Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network. “In my reading of them, none of (the rules) are significant jumps forward.”

Both Mauger and Weir said requiring public officials to disclose their financial holdings and outside income as well as opening the governor’s office to FOIA requests would be effective, quick ways to build increase state accountability. Michigan is one of only two states that has no financial disclosure requirements for public officials. The other is Idaho.

As a candidate for governor, Whitmer promised to make government transparency and accountability a priority should she assume office. Her “sunshine plan” outlined 10 reforms she hoped to make, including expanding FOIA to cover the governor’s office and passing personal financial disclosure laws.

Whitmer’s office could not be reached Thursday as to why she did not include these reforms in her directives or whether she plans to do so in the future.

Both the governor and the legislature can voluntarily open themselves up to records requests or disclose their personal finances, said Mauger. Many of the reforms Whitmer outlined in Thursday’s rules rely on a self-policing “honor system,” he said. With the ability to request state employees’ records, the public would have the power to watch their government’s activities themselves.

While there’s plenty of room for growth, Mauger said Whitmer’s new rules are “bright lines” that are easy to understand and clearly indicate her expectations for state employees. “It adds accountability.”

Whitmer’s first executive directive, signed Wednesday, outlined reporting requirements for employees who learn of a public health or safety threat.

Related: Michigan Senate debates reversing Gov. Whitmer’s environmental overhaul
Related: Gretchen Whitmer reshapes Michigan environmental watchdog agency

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