Michigan’s 108 state representatives sent a powerful message on Thursday, March 16 by passing the Legislative Open Records Act unanimously. To approve this legislation during National Sunshine Week reflects the commitment and interest these elected officials have in open and transparent state government in the executive and legislative branches. They recognized the importance as do their constituents. Kudos to all of them.
The bills now move to the state Senate where that body’s Majority Leader, Arlan Meekhof, a Republican from Ottawa County’s 30th district, has already stated his opinion that these bills are unnecessary. Meekhof killed the LORA last session by refusing to bring them to a vote in the Government Operations Committee which he chairs. The current practice in these legislative committees is if the chair doesn’t like a bill, it never gets a hearing or a vote. He has said he plans to bury the LORA bills again.
There is hope, however, with the introduction of SB 246 by Senators Tonya Schuitmaker (R-26), Rick Jones (R-24) and Margaret O’Brien (R-20). These three Republican lawmakers have put Speaker Meekhof on notice that they recognize that the Governor, Lieutenant Governor and the Legislature should be as transparent and accountable to the citizens of the state just like city councils, township, county and school boards. Kudos to those three.
Speaker Meekhof claims only the news media care about open government. He is wrong. The Michigan Coalition for Open Government fields many queries for guidance in filing freedom of information requests. Citizens are shocked and angry when they discover that the Governor and Lieutenant Governor are exempted by statute and the Legislature by an Attorney General Opinion from 1986. These citizens question why their local governments must comply with the state’s freedom of information law while, at the state level, all three branches of government are somehow above the law. The tragedy of the Flint water crisis has lead to a much greater awareness of the importance of Freedom of Information laws and how transparency and accountability are vital at all levels of government.
Michigan is the only state in the nation to statutorily exempt the Governor and Lieutenant Governor from requirements of FOIA. Michigan is also an outlier with the Attorney General opinion exempting the legislature.
The time to correct this is long overdue. We strongly encourage Senators on both sides of the aisle to show the same resolve, leadership and wisdom of their House colleagues and demand committee hearings on the LORA bills and a vote on the floor of the Senate without further delay. These are reforms citizens want and expect.
As just one of 38 senators, Speaker Meekhof, should not be permitted to bury these bills in his committee. He maintains the state Constitution provides enough accountability and transparency. Clearly it does not. Just ask the people of Flint.