Back in the 1970s, legislatures all over the nation moved to enact laws to give citizens the most complete access possible to government records,
The nation had been shaken by revelations of government corruption in both Vietnam and the Watergate scandals. In response, Michigan, like the federal government and nearly every other state, then enacted Freedom of Information Acts, or FOIAs.
The idea behind FOIAs (pronounced FOY-UH) 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 didn’t want to give it to them - within five business days. All citizens would be expected to pay were very minimal copying expense, plus for the time of the lowest paid clerk.
With the exception of some personnel records and matters of national security everything worked pretty well for a time.
But not anymore. And surprisingly, two of the most conservative voices in the state Legislature are leading a charge to restore sunshine and citizen access to government.
State Reps. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, and Tom McMillin, R-Rochester, are names that often make liberals and even moderates shudder. McMillin is best known for pushing hard-right positions on social issues. Shirkey was the sponsor and most vigorous advocate of the right-to-work legislation enacted last year.
Yet they, like many liberals, journalists, and the American Civil Liberties Union, don’t trust governments — and think vigorous public oversight is needed. So earlier this year, they each introduced legislation that would work to correct some of the ways governments are flagrantly disregarding FOIA rules.
Shirkey’s bill, HB 4001, 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 the public anything for simply viewing the records.
He would also reduce the amount they could charge even further if they dragged their feet, and provide for punitive damages of $5,000 if the public body or government “arbitrarily and capriciously” violates the FOIA by refusing or delaying providing public records.
There’s little doubt that governments are wildly inconsistent in their compliance with FOIA rules. Recently, this columnist had a group of students make identical and innocuous FOIA requests to various cities and townships, asking for the total compensation packages for all their parks and recreation department employees.
The city of Wixom, in Oakland County, immediately provided the information without charge and with no questions asked. Southfield, in the same county, asked for a 10-day extension.
And Westland, which is in Wayne County (and bills itself as an “All-American City”), informed the student they would not supply any information at all unless she first paid $5, and then agreed to pay $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, McMillan agreed that was outrageous “They charge too much. Government does things all citizens have a right to know. We need to knock down the price.”
Material is too often being withheld, as well, he added. Accordingly, he has a companion bill, HB 4314, which would establish a new Open Government Commission to be housed in the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. The commission would then investigate citizen complaints regarding denial of information.
If it found the compliant justified, it 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, McMillan 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,” McMillan said. He noted that 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 than if citizens want to keep an eye on the government, they are able to do it,” he said. That’s a battle that Americans have been fighting in one way or another, since 1776. His bills may face some pushback.
There may be lawmakers who don’t want to make it easier for the voters to closely scrutinize what they do, either.
But politics sometimes makes complex alliances, and if he succeeds, some people who aren’t normally his fans — the ACLU, for example - may want to give Tom McMillin a good government award.
Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst, an ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News. He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.