Words often aren’t worth much if meaningful action doesn’t follow.
It’s the “boy who cried wolf” principle and we see it borne out by our political class so frequently we’ve begun to take a wait-and-see approach to many of our elected officials’ declarations.
Hollow words have become so common, especially from Lansing and Washington, D.C., promises of reforms elicit little more than an eye roll or shrug from many Michiganders. Think about it, how many lawmakers, governors and bureaucratic executives have fallen short on promises to fix roads, schools and water infrastructure in our state?
We recently found ourselves marching toward the “we’ll believe it when we see it” camp to watch grand pronouncements about our state’s godawful transparency and anti-corruption regulations. Some state lawmakers — far too few for our taste — have declared their desire to rewrite the laws that for years have been weaponized to prevent public disclosure of government documents.
For those not familiar with the issue, Michigan’s laws ensuring access to public records and preventing government corruption are barely worth the paper they’re written on.
Most Michiganders don’t spend much time seeking public records from local or state governments. But those who do quickly learn why the Center for Public Integrity gave worst-in-the-nation dishonors to Michigan’s anti-corruption and open records laws.
Those of us who spend our days trying to pull back the bureaucratic curtains for a glimpse of how our government works on our behalf have become accustomed to the faux disclosure practices condoned in Michigan law.
For a few moments earlier this year, we were encouraged by efforts to improve those oversight and disclosure rules — our state currently is one of only two where the governor and state lawmakers are entirely exempt from public records requests.
One package of bills that passed the state house, but stalled in the senate, would finally expose at least some of those politicians’ records to public scrutiny.
Those bills aren’t perfect — they might not be enough to lift our state’s status in CPI’s ranking.
A package of important financial oversight bills was approved last week by a house committee, but no-doubt will hit political headwinds in the full legislature. Those bills would require lawmakers and a passel of other state-level elected officials and candidates to disclose financial interests, conflicts and family ties to lobbyists. Seems like a common sense move, especially as Traverse City’s state Rep. Larry Inman faces federal prosecution on accusations of corruption.
But moves to head off corruption in government seem to die quietly in legislative drawers.
We also were encouraged by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive directive early this year that aimed to unilaterally make state agencies more responsive to requests for documents. Those words were a small-but-important move toward setting a more transparent tone for bureaucracies that spend billions from taxpayer coffers and make thousands of decisions that affect the health and safety of us all.
Unfortunately, that tone of transparency didn’t reach the correct ears in some departments. Disappointment probably is too polite a word to describe our feelings a few weeks ago when a a state department responded to a Record-Eagle records request with a $4,000 cost estimate.
That request sought disclosure of records related to groundwater contamination that poisoned hundreds of northern Michigan drinking water wells. It seems to us, releasing those documents would be an important step toward helping us all understand how state officials handled the contamination and what steps they took to protect the people whose water now is laced with chemicals.
The estimated fees made us wonder about the inner workings of state agencies. We are forced to suppose either the agency’s records are in unimaginable disarray, or someone, for some reason, believes massive fees will prevent public release of whatever those documents contain.
That latest response is just one in an arms-long list of instances we could cite when public employees or elected officials perverted our public disclosure laws to preserve bureaucratic murkiness.
Like so many, we’ve lost faith in big talk and hollow promises.
We want action.