In most states, if journalists or citizens want to hold our elected officials accountable, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an important tool in our political toolbox.
However, Michigan is one of a small handful of states where the governor’s office and state legislature are FOIA exempt. This means that documents and records can be hidden from the public, except on rare occasions.
Governor Rick Snyder recently volunteered to post a series of emails regarding the Flint water crisis, which highlighted that Michigan was ranked dead last in the country in terms of transparency.
Melanie McElroy, Executive Director of Common Cause Michigan and Mike Reitz, Executive Vice President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, joined the United States for a panel discussion on the Michigan government’s lack of transparency, how and why the exemptions of FOIA have been granted. , and what can be done about it.
âPeople are demanding full transparency,â McElroy said. âThe people of Flint have a right to know why their water has been poisoned with lead, why their children are sick. And you can’t do that by picking and choosing which emails you make public and when it happens.
McElroy and Common Cause Michigan seek to reform the current system and promote FOIA reform.
But should the governor’s office be subject to FOIA? Reitz thinks he should be.
“The Mackinac Center has recommended this in the past and we generally think it is a good idea that the governor’s office be treated the same as other branches of government or other agencies under the freedom of information. “
Reitz added that the situation in Flint has highlighted the need for greater government transparency for the greater good of the people of that state.
âThe rationale for FOIA, unfortunately, is very clear and very apparent in situations like the one we are currently experiencing with the Flint water crisis,â Reitz said. “Decisions have been made that will affect people’s lives in horrific ways for years and years to come, and the people of Flint and the people of Michigan rightly want to know who made those decisions and how they were. taken and why we got it wrong? “
McElroy says the water crisis may be the issue that motivates the public to pressure our elected officials to change our transparency laws.
âPeople are trying to think about the future,â McElroy said. âHow can we prevent a crisis like the one we’re seeing in Flint from happening in other cities? Our infrastructure isn’t just crumbling thereâ¦ we’re bound to see more problems. We have other cities managed for emergencies. There are a lot of things that can happen. And I think the more transparency we have up front, the more elected officials and their staff might stop and think, “if our emails and our documents are subject to public scrutiny, we may behave a little differently, we we can make decisions a little differently, so I don’t just think FOIA reforms and other transparency measures are helpful in responding to crises, but they could also prevent things from happening in the future.
Listen to the full interview to hear the two guests examine the state of Michigan’s FOIA laws, how the system can be improved, and why they agree that a FOIA request shouldn’t cost $ 6.7 million.
CORRECTION: An earlier version stated that Michigan was one of two states, along with Massachusetts, to exempt the governor’s office and legislature from the FOIA. It has been amended to say that Michigan is one of the few states to benefit from such exemptions.
– Josh Hakala, United States staff member