Michigan FOIA receives ‘F’ grade

LANSING – The Flint water crisis could give a boost to proposed changes to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act by adding the legislative branch and governor’s office to governmental bodies that must follow it.

The changes, introduced by state Sen. Coleman Young II, D-Detroit, are co-sponsored by 10 senators.

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act ensures that the public is entitled to full and complete information regarding governmental affairs, although it excludes the governor and the Legislature.

In recent years, the act has not been immune to amendments. Six changes have been enacted in just the past six months.

But now, proponents for change are seizing on the Flint water crisis to push for more changes.

Under pressure, Gov. Rick Snyder said he would release his emails that are relevant to the discovery of lead in Flint’s water system. He released 274 pages of emails for downloading on his website.

“I think that what we’ve seen is a lot of talk about transparency,” said Sen. Curtis Hertel Jr., D-Lansing, co-sponsor of Young’s bill. “This situation in Flint is another example of when the public should have a right to know what their leaders are doing, when they’re doing it, why they’re doing it and what they’re doing about it. We cannot allow the government to hide behind the executive privilege.”

Hertel said Rep. Sheldon Neeley, D-Flint, sent an email to the governor’s office in January 2015 regarding the need for an investigation into Flint’s water, which was not included in the emails Snyder released to the public.

“How do we know they aren’t picking and choosing what (emails) would look better for them?” Neeley said. “What ends up happening is the public distrusts our government. We need the public trust, and to get it back we have to be open and honest, and this bill would require that.”

Michigan is one of just three states that exempt the governor and legislature from the state freedom of information law.

“Massachusetts is completely exempt,” said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager of the Michigan Press Association. “We certainly appreciate the governor releasing his emails this week, but there’s a need for these bodies to be more transparent and be part of the law. The organization and I believe change is due.”

“Utah also exempts their governor,” said Jane Briggs-Bunting, former president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.

Hertel said that for many years, Michigan’s Legislature has put an emphasis on transparency at the local government level, but doesn’t want to play by the same rules.

“They exempt themselves, but they are no better than anyone else,” he said

Briggs-Bunting said that Snyder deserves more credit than he’s getting.

“He released his emails on Flint, without a FOIA (request),” she said. “Frankly, he had nothing to do with the problem in Flint. It’s a century-old problem for any urban area with lead pipes.”

Nonetheless, she said she still believes there is much more to be done in allowing the public to access records of both the governor and the Legislature.

“The Center of Public Integrity gave Michigan an ‘F’ rating, one of very few states to receive the worst possible grade, which I credit to our transparency issues,” Briggs-Bunting said. “I think Sen. Young’s bill is a great idea that would bring Michigan in line with 47 other states.”