Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 10, 2013

Forum: Sunshine Week brings transparency

BY JANE BRIGGS-BUNTING

— Welcome to Sunshine Week. 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 cops and others.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to encourage discussion of open government and freedom of information; it is celebrated in mid-March to coincide with James Madison’s March 16 birthday.

This year, it is also the official launch of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. Michigan was one of just two states nationally (the other is Alaska) without an open government group.

The coalition’s purpose is three-fold:

n To promote and protect transparency and accountability in state and local governments;

n To recommend significant freedom of information, open meetings and public access legal cases to the National Freedom of Information Coalition for financial support,

n And to create educational programs and information.

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 Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Act cases.

MiCOG makes Michigan citizens and news media eligible to access some of the $2 million the Knight Foundation gave to the Freedom of Information Coalition to fund worthwhile open access litigation. If the plaintiff recovers attorney fees and court costs, that money goes back to the national group for future lawsuits around the nation.

This type of support is necessary now more than ever. A 2010 survey concluded that the economic crisis plus declining revenues for print and broadcast media resulted in a sharp decline in FOI requests and litigation nationwide. 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. 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.

Effective use of the FOIA is critical to keep tabs on public officials around the state.

The situation is critical for Michigan, where ethics and anti-corruption laws barely exist. In 2012 Michigan earned a failing grade, ranking 44th of 50 states (http://www.stateintegrity.org/michigan) in a State Integrity Investigation (http://www.stateintegrity.org/) jointly done by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International.

Michigan had a dismal showing for key transparency checkpoints: public access to information (D), ethics enforcement agencies (F); judicial, executive and legislative accountability (all F) and political financing/lobbying disclosure (both F).

Local governments from schools and universities to municipalities and police are usually just as non-responsive.

Visit the MiCOG website at http://www.miopengov.org.

About the author: Jane Briggs-Bunting is president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and a media attorney who directed the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

About the forum: The forum is a periodic column of opinion written by Record-Eagle readers in their areas of interest or expertise. Submissions of 500 words or less may be made by emailing letters@record-eagle.com. Please include biographical information and a photo.