‘Transparency’ legislation positive step but more needed

Legislation churning its way through the Senate right now, if enacted, would take a good step toward improving transparency of government here in the Great Lakes State, but still falls short of a complete home run.

It’s a rare phenomenon that doesn’t tend to happen very often these days, but a group of politicians from different parts of the political spectrum actually all agreed on something.

The Michigan House on Tuesday voted unanimously — yes, all in agreement — to expand the state’s open-records law to cover the Legislature and governor’s office, according to a recent Associated Press report on the matter. The AP story noted that Michigan is just one of two states in the entire country that wholly exempts both entities from disclosing communications and other information to the public, which simply seems bizarre to anyone who has a vested interest in how their government performs.

Considering these politicians are picked by us, the electorate, they should ultimately be held accountable by John Q. Public. Making their records like emails and other documents open and accessible to the public supports that accountability and oversight, and encourages — at least we would hope — politicians and other government officials to act responsibly, ethically and in accordance to the laws they themselves craft.

Under the proposed legislation, the governor, lieutenant governor, their offices and employees would no longer be exempt from the Freedom of Information Act starting in 2020. A new section, the proposed Legislative Open Records Act, would be added to cover the Legislature. Unlike other public bodies, however, the Legislature could not be sued if a request were denied. Appeals would be decided by a panel of lawmakers.

A previous version of the LORA bill would have only required entities to retain anything deemed to be a public record for 30 days, though, thankfully, that was changed to two years. With retention of records at just a month, the previous version of the bill would have seemed a farce as far as “transparent government” goes, particularly in long-term developing situations like the Flint Water Crisis, where important communications might have been destroyed before the issue ever came to light.

We’re also not tickled by the fact that should a request for legislative records be denied and that decision appealed, the case would be handled by a panel of lawmakers in the Legislature, rather than in a judicial court of law. It’s not like that for other public bodies, and it shouldn’t be for legislators either. That decision should be handled in court. If there’s a good reason for why it shouldn’t be, we haven’t heard it.

We’ve always championed transparency in government, using the space on this editorial page many times in the past to criticize those in power who choose to conduct their affairs in the shadows.

This legislation will improve the state’s transparency a considerable amount, and senators should seriously consider it. However, senators should also consider asking themselves whether legislators deserve special circumstances that are not extended to other public bodies. In our opinion, it’s a pretty simple question to answer — they don’t.