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

As a candidate for governor, Gretchen Whitmer pledged to increase transparency and accountability for public officials — areas where Michigan ranks last among states.

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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Thu, 01/03/2019 - 7:55pm

Good news! We can all be certain that the state's ratings from CPI have already taken a jump since we've elected a Democratic Administration and that is the definition of clean government.

Kevin Grand
Fri, 01/04/2019 - 6:46am

Again, this sounds all well and good on the surface, but where's the follow-through?

Will she direct AG Nessel to go after scofflaws?

Will the MSP personally arrest any violators of these policies?

Will we see the media in-tow for either of the above (like AG Schuette absolutely loved doing)?

If Gov. Whitmer wants to be taken seriously, she needs to realize that she's not on the campaign trail any longer and can't just spout off empty promises.

Frank N Koob
Fri, 01/04/2019 - 8:52am

We all need to give our new governor a chance. The first directive of her term in office sets a theme that will be spelled out further in coming days and months. She'll be scrutinized, of course. Many still remember the last time we had a woman governor. One person told me that he certainly hopes she will not be like the last woman Governor that we had. Now that's his judgment. And I do not want to get into a critique of the term of the last woman governor. We know how she was a victim of very turbulent times in our country. We have turbulent times right now. A great person will rise up out of turbulence. That is how we identify our real heroes, isn't it?

Tue, 01/08/2019 - 8:33am

It's not that our Gov is a woman or even a Democrat, it's that the Democratic party has a habit of putting forward a procession of people who had no experience or perspective other than being a governmental parasite and their intuition whether intentional or not is a negative. They don't even recognize it. For that reason our business climate takes a dump and they have no clue how to turn it around. But you're correct, the right should hold our fire for the moment.

Sun, 01/13/2019 - 7:47am

I agree. She WON the election fairly! Lets not do the Trump thing on the state level and respect her leadership! As to "Judgement" we were betrayed by the last governor woman who seemed to favor her "NATIVE" land, Canada! Its ok to make deals but NOT at the expense of Michiganders. I hope she revisits the Michigan Works program. Employees seem to come from NOWHERE, meaning the jobs at Michigan Works are never posted - publicly, yet these people always get 1st choice at State openings!. I am happy she STOPED state workers sharing our information for private use, like those 501c3's that seems to pop up and all of a sudden people got your PII. I can name a few churches and employees of the state who have shared but lied - Rainey! Pastors be actin like they hearing from God when in fact the information came from the DHS Case manager...ect. And state auditor helping their OWN likenesses...when a friends business needs help, they....

Michigan Observer
Fri, 01/04/2019 - 4:45pm

"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."

Are all the states with financial disclosure requirements and FOIA access to the Governor's office free of corruption and well governed?