Michigan Lawmakers Propose Bills to Reform Freedom of Information Act Laws
As the water crisis in Flint continues, millions of people in the state of Michigan and across the country are demanding answers about how something like this could have happened and what could have been done to stop it. A big way to get answers to those questions would involve finding out exactly what Governor Rick Snyder and other state officials knew about the matter and when they knew about it.
Although Governor Snyder did voluntarily release 21,000 pages of emails and other documentation related to the water crisis in Flint, the incident has renewed interest in reforming Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) laws. Under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, as it currently stands, anyone is allowed to request information about what’s going on at public schools, local government, and state departments. However, the governor, the lieutenant governor, their offices, and legislators are all exempt from FOIA requests. Expense reports and other financial documents are subject to disclosure under state law. Michigan and Massachusetts are the only two states to have such large exceptions to their Freedom of Information Act laws.
In an effort to improve government transparency, a group of nine Michigan lawmakers, consisting of both Democrats and Republicans, have proposed a package of ten bills that would reform Michigan’s FOIA laws to remove the exemptions for governors, lieutenant governors, and other legislators. Certain information such as human resources records, communication with constituents, ongoing internal investigations, and personal information about legislators would be exempt under the proposed bills.
The bills were announced in conjunction with Sunshine Week in March, which is a week dedicated to raising awareness about the importance of making information readily accessible. As part of Sunshine Week, the Associated Press also reached out to a few Michigan officials including Governor Snyder, House Speaker Kevin Cotter, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich, and. House Minority Leader Tim Greimel about releasing some of their emails and meeting calendars. Tim Greimel was the only one to agree to do so. Greimel says he did so as a way to lead by example and because it was the right thing to do. He told the press, “It’s long past time that the public that is ultimately the boss of legislators has access to government documents in the Legislature and the executive branch.”
Of course, the bills have their fair share of critics. Some are concerned that some of the information that would be released could infringe on the privacy of the constituents who contact their legislators. Other lawmakers say they don’t like the idea that lobbyists could potentially file FOIA requests to gain access to internal records that would provide them with information they might be able to use to their advantage. Other efforts have been made to remove this exemption in the FOIA in the past, but have not been successful.