A legal battle over who will run the city of Flint has centered on the provisions of the rewrite of the state's emergency manager law -- PA4.
But an alarming side note was sounded in the fight this week -- an idea that could weaken public oversight of government statewide.
According to Gongwer News Service (sorry, password-protected): "In oral arguments, Assistant Attorney General Heather Meingast disputed that the process was secret. Although the meetings of the review team were closed to the public, the contents of the meeting were not secret, Ms. Meingast contended, saying the actions of the review team were made public.
"'There really wasn't anything secret about this process. It just wasn't as open as he wanted it to be," she said. 'It wasn't secret. It simply wasn't open. I do think there's a difference there.'" (emphasis added)
Let me be open about something: This is dangerous thinking for Michigan citizens. It represents a fundamental attack on the state's Open Meetings Act -- a law passed in the 1970s to ensure the public could see what government officials were doing.
Handy-dandy link to OMA (and the associated Freedom of Information Act): http://www.legislature.mi.gov/documents/publications/openmtgsfreedom.pdf
Notice what the Attorney General's Office -- on behalf of the state -- is arguing: A closed meeting is an "open" one because, at some point, the results of said meeting are made public. Read through the text of the OMA for yourself and try to find this distinction in it.
You will notice that OMA has exceptions to allow for closed sessions -- but under carefully delineated circumstances. The default position, however, is that meetings are open unless public officials can prove that they've met an exception. The AG's office apparently would flip the process -- allowing public officials to meet in closed session unless the public could prove that the results of said meeting were not shown in the light of day.
Staff Writer Nancy Derringer provided an example of how a weakening of the law could quickly change how governments operate in Michigan:
"GROSSE POINTE SHORES — John Lizza doesn't like public watchdogs nosing around his board of review. "I think somebody sitting in (on meetings) inhibits the process, to some extent," he said. Lizza chairs the Grosse Pointe Shores board of review."
Derringer pointed out: Lizza is an attorney.
To be clear, democratic government is not efficient government. Having open meetings and open documents can create hassles for government agencies, government employees, elected leaders. This engenders an all-too-familiar response: Efforts to evade the requirements.
The Michigan Press Association, of which Bridge Magazine is member, said in its 2012 legislative agenda:
"Michigan’s Open Meetings law has suffered over the last few years. Governments have given themselves the authority to meet apart from the general public to discuss matters for which there is a perceived need for secrecy. Public servants are more shielded from the people they serve than ever before and this promotion of secrecy breeds suspicion and disrespect for those we elect to represent us at all levels of government." (emphasis added)
The last thing Michigan needs is to create more distance between citizens and their public servants. Holding open meetings can be a pain, but it's the tiniest of prices to pay to help perpetuate representative government.