Sunshine Week 2014: MiCOG pushes for government transparency

Welcome to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Week. It’s a great week to let folks know about how accountable and responsible their governments are at the state, county and local level. It’s also the first official birthday of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG), a tax-exempt nonprofit group that keeps a sharp eye on the accountability, transparency and responsibility of public officials, governments, public universities and the courts. The three columns below were published in newspapers and news sites around Michigan. Please join MiCOG and join the push for open, transparent and accountable government in Michigan. We the people deserve nothing less.

Government transparency vital at all levels of government

By Charles Hill

If you’ve been watching what goes on in Washington and some statehouses across the country, you might wonder if there’s any issue that everyone should be able to agree on whether they are conservative or liberal or libertarian, Democrat or Republican, pro-this or anti-that. There is: It’s the need for transparency in all levels of government. As we observe Sunshine Week in Michigan and around the country to encourage openness in government, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) is urging citizens and public officials to seek transparency in the operations of their local and state governments, their schools and universities, their federal government and their courts. You can do this by supporting Michigan legislation that would amend the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to make government information more accessible by limiting fees and discouraging delays. Or by supporting a bill that a Republican lawmaker proposed to create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals. Or by supporting a bill that two Democratic lawmakers proposed to expand FOIA coverage for the legislative branch so it is more in line with the broader coverage that applies to the executive branch. MiCOG — a non-profit, tax-exempt organization open to citizens, journalists and associations concerned with open government and freedom of information – urges passage of that pending legislation. You also can make a difference by letting your local officials — from the mayor to school board members — know that it’s important to you to know how your tax dollars are being spent and how they are making decisions about classrooms or parks or roads or snow removal or trash collection. It’s important for you to know this so you can independently judge the soundness of those decisions, so you can suggest your ideas for improvements in programs or government actions, so you can evaluate government officials’ performance, and so you can guard against corruption and conflicts of interest. You can help by asking questions of your government officials and by encouraging openness. Politicians and government officials are more likely to take the trouble to create open systems and practices if they know it is important to their constituents. Tell them that your assessment of their performance includes their record on open government. Let them know this should not be a partisan issue, and that you want information regardless of which party or group is in power. If you’re in New Jersey, you don’t have to be a Democrat to want to know more about a big bridge closure in that state. In Michigan and Louisiana, you don’t have to be a Republican to want information surrounding the corruption charges that resulted in convictions of mayors in New Orleans and Detroit. Michigan has plenty of tough transparency and accountability challenges ahead, including how courts handle public access and fees for electronic records, whether juvenile criminal records should be public or secret, and how much secrecy should be allowed in new mental health courts, including convict records and data revealing rates of recidivism for the program. Remember that you have a stake in Michigan’s freedom of information laws. How much you are permitted to know about your government directly affects the quality of your government, your schools, your courts, your job, your freedom and your life. Charles Hill is a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and a former Michigan bureau chief for The Associated Press. To join or find out more about MiCOG, go to http://www.miopengov.org or follow MiCOG on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/MIOpenGov or Twitter @miopengov.

High fees frustrate intent of FOIA, Legislature should act to protect, expand law

By Jane Briggs-Bunting and Kathy Barks Hoffman Two of the most important Michigan laws guaranteeing government transparency and openness are the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and the Open Meetings Act (OMA). Yet just having the laws on the books doesn’t mean citizens and journalists can easily get the information to which they’re entitled from school districts, state and local governments and other public bodies. Excessive fee charges are the most recurring complaint in FOIA disputes, and the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) has fielded dozens of inquiries on fees since it came into being a year ago. Michigan’s law doesn’t standardize how much public entities can charge in fees, although Reps. Mike Shirkey (R-Clark Lake) and Tom McMillin (R-Rochester Hills) are trying to do so in FOIA legislation currently under consideration in the state legislature. Without a change in the current law, some well-run local governments will continue to charge nothing for records, while nearby communities will levy a charge for the same record request. Even copying costs can vary widely from as low as 10 cents a page to $1 a page. Yet for simple requests of easily found public records, it’s hard to see why any fees should be charged at all. The fee issue is a chronic complaint that will continue to elude resolution without legislative action. Even if the current legislation is passed, it will have only limited effect. A significant obstacle to getting public records at a reasonable cost is a part of the law that allows public bodies such as school districts and state and local governments to charge “the hourly wage of the lowest paid public body employee capable of retrieving the information necessary to comply with a request under this act.” This provision gets used as a way for the public entity to charge those making FOIA requests money they shouldn’t have to spend. Yet the purpose of FOIA and the Open Meetings Act is to enable citizens to get “full and complete information regarding the affairs of government,” as well as information about the actions taken by public officials and employees. The law supports having an informed citizenry so they can “fully participate in the democratic process.” That’s an important goal strongly supported by MiCOG (www.miopengov.org), a tax-exempt nonprofit group that keeps a sharp eye on the accountability, transparency and responsibility of public officials, governments, public universities and the courts. MiCOG tried last year to keep the Michigan Supreme Court from working through the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) to draft legislation that exempts disclosure of any information on mental health courts and hidden criminal juvenile records. It wasn’t successful in that effort. But MiCOG’s continuing the push for legislation that will keep the cost of getting a FOIA request fulfilled reasonable for average citizens. That legislation is worth keeping in mind as we mark the start of Sunshine Week in Michigan and the rest of the nation. Sunshine Week is aimed at encouraging awareness and discussion of the importance of open, transparent government and broad access to public information. The effort was launched in 2005 by the American Society of News Editors with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The Knight brothers previously owned the Detroit Free Press. Journalists, citizens and others who feel they’ve been unfairly denied the information they’ve asked for through a FOIA request or who think OMA has been violated can apply to MiCOG for financial help to pursue their fights over public access, with funds coming from the Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Center. Citizens also can urge lawmakers to pass House Bill 4001, which deals with FOIA request fees and other matters affecting public records, and House Bill 4314, which would create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals. Both are important bills that can help make government more accessible and accountable to citizens. Jane Briggs-Bunting is the president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (www.miopengov.org). She’s a veteran reporter, media attorney and former director of the Michigan State University School of Journalism and Oakland University journalism program. Kathy Barks Hoffman is MiCOG’s treasurer. She covered Michigan government and politics as head of the Associated Press’ Lansing Bureau and now serves as director of public affairs for Lambert, Edwards & Associates, Michigan’s largest bipartisan strategic communications firm.

MI Courts need to refocus on public access

By Jane Briggs-Bunting Welcome to Michigan’s Freedom of Information Week. It’s a great week to let folks know about how accountable and responsible their governments are at the state, county and local level. It’s also the first official birthday of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG), a tax-exempt nonprofit group that keeps a sharp eye on the accountability, transparency and responsibility of public officials, governments, public universities and the courts. Back when the state’s freedom of information and open meetings laws went into effect in 1977, the Michigan Supreme Court exempted all Michigan courts from being covered by those laws. In subsequent decisions, the court has exempted all 15 public university boards from the Open Meetings Act when it comes to presidential searches. The universities say that decision also applies to their retreats, pre-meetings and other discussions that occur outside of the public meetings mandated by the state constitution. That’s extremely relevant now as a presidential search was just completed for the University of Michigan, and as searches are underway at Oakland University and Saginaw Valley State University. Public universities are annually given hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, yet because of the court’s ruling, information about applicants who want to become president can remain secret until a new president is selected. Court decisions have consistently expanded the interpretations of exemptions despite the public policy language of the Freedom of Information Act itself. Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court through the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) helped draft legislation that exempts disclosure of any information on:

  • Mental health courts (even data on the number of cases these courts handle, the success, failures and rates of recidivism on individuals involved)
  • Hidden criminal juvenile records (including violent felonies and keeping potential employers from finding out about sex offenders)

Most recently, the Michigan Supreme Court through the SCAO has approved phasing in mandatory electronic filing of court documents without any mention of public access to the records and what that access should cost. The so-called e-filing legislation is, at least at this point, an “unfunded mandate” being handed down to the local courts that requires them to keep all court documents in electronic form rather than on paper. According to some of the court clerks that MiCOG surveyed last year, “unfunded mandates” from the state are a serious financial problem for local governments. Nationally and in Michigan, the courts have historically operated with a great deal of transparency. But this is changing fast in Michigan despite the state law mandate that “sittings of every court within this state shall be public” except in certain cases. The people have a right to full access to their courts. As we head into Sunshine Week, MiCOG urges the courts to maintain an attitude of public accountability to engender confidence and belief in the fairness of the legal system. It’s what’s best for the courts, and for Michigan citizens.   Jane Briggs-Bunting is the president of the Michigan Coalition for 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.

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