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Published: Friday, 11/1/2013

COMMENTARY

Mich. lawmaker wants public information to be as free as possible

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
Jack Lessenberry. Jack Lessenberry.
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LANSING — In the 1970s, legislatures all over the country enacted laws intended to give citizens the most complete access possible to government records.

The nation had been shaken by revelations of government corruption in the handling of the Vietnam War and in the Watergate scandal. In response, Michigan, like the federal government and nearly every other state, enacted a Freedom of Information Act.

The idea behind FOIA was simple: Government records should be public records, and what governments do — to the fullest extent possible — should be open to public scrutiny.

Michigan’s FOIA provides that any citizen can request any information in writing, and receive the information — or a reason why the government doesn’t want to provide it — within five business days. Citizens would be expected to pay only minimal copying expenses, and for the time of the lowest-paid clerk.

With the exception of access to some personnel records and national security matters, everything worked pretty well — for a time.

But not anymore. And surprisingly, two of the most conservative voices in the Michigan Legislature are leading a charge to restore sunshine and citizen access to government.

State Reps. Mike Shirkey and Tom McMillin, both Republicans, often make liberals and even moderates shudder. Mr. Shirkey was the sponsor and most vigorous advocate of Michigan’s right-to-work legislation enacted last year. Mr. McMillin is best-known for pushing hard-right positions on social issues.

Yet they, like many liberals, journalists, and the American Civil Liberties Union, don’t trust government — and think vigorous public oversight is needed. So this year, they introduced legislation that would work to correct some of the ways governments are flagrantly disregarding FOIA rules.

Mr. Shirkey’s bill would amend the state Freedom of Information Act to set statewide standards for the cost of reproducing records. He would allow public bodies to charge no more than 10 cents a page, and would not allow them to charge anything for simply viewing records.

He also would reduce the amount governments could charge even more if they dragged their feet. He proposes punitive damages of $5,000 if a public body or government “arbitrarily and capriciously” violates FOIA by refusing or delaying the issuance of public records.

Governments are wildly inconsistent in their compliance with FOIA rules. I recently had a group of students make identical and innocuous FOIA requests to various Michigan cities and townships. The students asked for the total compensation packages of parks and recreation department employees.

The Oakland County city of Wixom immediately provided the information, without charge and with no questions asked. Southfield, in the same county, asked for a 10-day extension.

Wayne County’s Westland, which calls itself an All-American city, informed the student it would not supply any information unless the student paid $5 up front, and then $45.61 “for every hour incurred in research, copying, and collating any requested material, plus $1 a page for all copies.”

During an interview last week, Mr. McMillin agreed that was outrageous. “They charge too much,” he said. “Government does things all citizens have a right to know. We need to knock down the price.”

Material too often is withheld, he added. He has a companion bill to establish an open-government commission in the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. The commission would investigate citizen complaints about denial of information.

If it found a complaint justified, the commission could “issue an opinion that is binding and enforceable,” and if necessary, involve the state attorney general.

Members of the nine-member commission would be appointed by a variety of sources, including the governor and top legislative leaders — but also the Michigan Association of Broadcasters and the Michigan Press Association.

The bills are likely to move to the full House soon, Mr. McMillin said — in part because they were referred to the House Oversight Committee, which he chairs. “I won’t move them unless I have bipartisan support, but I am sure I do,” he told me.

“If we are going to have government we trust, you have to be more transparent,” he said.

Under term limits, he is serving his last two years in the Michigan House. “I am going to be leaving here soon, and I want to make sure that if citizens want to keep an eye on the government, they are able to do it,” Mr. McMillin said.

That’s a battle that Americans have been fighting in one way or another since 1776. His bills may face pushback. Some lawmakers may not want to make it easier for voters to scrutinize what they do.

But politics sometimes makes complex alliances. If Mr. McMillin succeeds, some people who normally aren’t his fans — the ACLU, for example — may want to give him a good-government award.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade’s ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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