Jane Briggs-Bunting: Sunshine Week highlights public’s right to know

Jane-Briggs-Bunting-photoBy Jane Briggs-Bunting
Michigan Coalition for Open Government

Welcome to Sunshine Week, and no, I am not talking about the fickle weather in the state. I am talking about the public’s right and responsibility to keep an eye on what our government at the local, state and federal level are up to – from our legislators to our bureaucrats, school boards, state universities, teachers, mayors, managers, department heads, council members, cops and others.

Sunshine Week, a national initiative to encourage discussion on the importance of open government and freedom of information, is celebrated annually in mid-March to coincide with James Madison’s March 16 birthday. Madison was an outspoken defendant of free speech, free press and government transparency and accountability.

Sunshine Week is also the official launch of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG). Michigan was one of just two states nationally (the other is Alaska) without an open government group.

MiCOG’s purpose is three-fold:

  • to promote and protect transparency and accountability in state and local governments;
  • to recommend significant freedom of information, open meetings and public access legal cases to the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) for financial support,
  • and to create educational programs and information.

And MiCOG invites you to join its efforts.

Why? Citizens and journalists are having greater difficulty obtaining public documents from government agencies. They are deterred by long delays in responses and high fees. Most individuals and smaller news organizations do not have the resources to mount legal challenges in FOIA and OMA cases.

But MiCOG can help with that. MiCOG makes citizens and news media in our state eligible to access some of the $2 million the Knight Foundation gave to NFOIC to fund worthwhile open access litigation. If the plaintiff prevails and recovers attorney fees and court costs (as required under Michigan’s FOI and OMA), that money goes back to the national group for future lawsuits around the nation. The NFOIC relies on state open government groups to recommend cases that could tap into the Knight funds. The national committee decides whether to back a case financially. One key role of MiCOG’s board is to make certain that only cases with good sets of facts go to court to make good law.

This type of support is necessary now more than ever. A 2010 survey by the NFOIC and the Knight Foundation concluded that the economic crisis plus declining revenues for print and broadcast media resulted in a sharp decline in FOI requests and litigation nationwide. News media were among the most frequent users of the law. In the past five years, the number of open government lawsuits filed by the news media in 23 states fell “dramatically.” Another eight states also reported declines. Nearly 80 percent of state FOI coalitions reported drops. More ominously, 85 percent said they expected FOI litigation to drop in the next three years.

Neither Michigan nor Alaska participated since both lacked open government groups, a deficiency MiCOG corrects for our state.

Effective use of the FOIA is critical to keep tabs on public officials and scapegrace former mayors, like Kwame Kilpatrick. FOI laws have made a difference around the state in Detroit, Pontiac, Flint, Saginaw, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Traverse City and St. Ignace.

The situation is critical for Michigan where ethics and anti-corruption laws barely exist. In 2012 the state earned a failing grade of “F” and a ranking 44th of 50 states  in a State Integrity Investigation jointly done by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Michigan earned its “F” after a dismal showing for key transparency checkpoints: public access to information (“D”), ethics enforcement agencies (“F”), judicial, executive and legislative accountability (all “F”s) and political financing/lobbying disclosure (both “F”s).

Local governments from schools and universities to municipalities and police can be just as non-responsive as state agencies to citizen inquiries.

With journalism students from Oakland University and Michigan State University, I’ve conducted three public records audits. The results surprise students but not me. Police agencies usually have the lowest compliance, local governments tend to be somewhat better. And though schools are the most compliant with requests such as the football coach’s salary,  students are often challenged as to why they want the information. Under Michigan law, no reason is required. And delays for most requests beyond the five business days set by law are routine.

In a spring 2012 audit,  students requested the name of the FOI coordinator at more than 50 cities and townships. Public bodies are mandated by the FOI law to have one. About 10 percent said no such person existed. That shows a dismal knowledge of the requirements of the FOI law.

If you want to help, please visit the MiCOG at www.miopengov.org and join the effort to keep the governments of the people, by the people and for the people transparent and accountable to all of us.

Jane Briggs-Bunting is the president of the Michigan Coalition of Open Government. She is a veteran reporter, media attorney and former director of the Michigan State University School of Journalism and Oakland University journalism program.

This Op-Ed may be reproduced in whole or in part, provided the author and the Michigan Coalition for Open Government are properly cited. For more information, contact us.

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