Guest Editorial: Opinions on the subject of Freedom of Information Week March 16-22

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 by Jane Briggs-Bunting

Editor’s Note: The following are two editorials about Freedom of Information, also known as Sunshine, Week.

The first is by Jane Briggs-Bunting, president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (on the web at www.miopengov.org). She is also a veteran reporter media attorney and former director of Michigan State University School of Journalism and Oakland University journalism program.

Opportunity to Urge Public Officials To Make Government More Transparent, Accountable

Welcome to Michigan's Freedom of Information Week. It's a great week to let folks know about how accountable and responsible their governments are at the state, county and local level.

It's also the first official birthday of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG), a  tax-exempt nonprofit group that keeps a sharp eye on the accountability, transparency and responsibility of public officials, governments, public universities and the courts.

Back when the state’s freedom of information and open meetings laws went into effect in 1977, the Michigan Supreme Court exempted all Michigan courts from being covered by those laws. 

In subsequent decisions, the court has exempted all 15 public university boards from the Open  Meetings Act when it comes to presidential searches. The universities say that decision also  applies to their retreats, pre-meetings and other discussions that occur outside of the public meetings mandated by the state constitution. That’s extremely relevant now as a presidential search was just completed for the University of Michigan, and as searches are underway at Oakland University and Saginaw Valley State University. Public universities are annually given hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, yet because of the court’s ruling, information about applicants who want to become president can remain secret until a new president is selected.

Court decisions have consistently expanded the interpretations of exemptions despite the public policy language of the Freedom of Information Act itself. Last year, the Michigan Supreme Court through the State Court Administrative Office (SCAO) helped draft legislation that exempts disclosure of any information on:

• Mental health courts (even data on the number of cases these courts handle, the success, failures and rates of recidivism on individuals involved)

• Hidden criminal juvenile records (including violent felonies and keeping potential employers from finding out about sex offenders)

Most recently, the Michigan Supreme Court through the SCAO has approved phasing in mandatory electronic filing of court documents without any mention of public access to the records and what that access should cost.

The so-called e-filing legislation is, at least at this point, an “unfunded mandate” being handed down to the local courts that requires them to keep all court documents in electronic form rather than on paper. According to some of the court clerks that MiCOG surveyed last year, “unfunded mandates” from the state are a serious financial problem for local governments.

Nationally and in Michigan, the courts have historically operated with a great deal of transparency. But this is changing fast in Michigan despite the state law mandate that “sittings of every court within this state shall be public” except in certain cases.

The people have a right to full access to their courts. As we head into Sunshine Week, MiCOG urges the courts to maintain an attitude of public accountability to engender confidence and belief in the fairness of the legal system. It’s what’s best for the courts, and for Michigan citizens.

The second is by Charles Hill, a Michigan Coalition for Open Government board member, and a former Michigan Bureau Chief for Associated Press.

Access To Information Should Be A Common Goal  For Better Government, Better Lives

If you’ve been watching what goes on in Washington and some statehouses across the country, you might wonder if there’s any issue that everyone should be able to agree on whether they are conservative or liberal or libertarian, Democrat or Republican, pro-this or anti-that.

There is: It’s the need for transparency in all levels of government. 

As we observe Sunshine Week in Michigan and around the country to encourage openness in government, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) is urging citizens and public officials to seek transparency in the operations of their local and state governments, their schools and universities, their federal government and their courts.

You can do this by supporting Michigan legislation that would amend the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to make government information more accessible by limiting fees and discouraging delays.

Or by supporting a bill that a Republican lawmaker proposed to create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals. Or by supporting a bill that two Democratic lawmakers proposed to expand FOIA coverage for the legislative branch so it is more in line with the broader coverage that applies to the executive branch.

MiCOG... urges passage of that pending legislation.

You also can make a difference by letting your local officials -- from the mayor to school board members -- know that it’s important to you to know how your tax dollars are being spent and how they are making decisions about classrooms or parks or roads or snow removal or trash collection.

It’s important for you to know this so you can independently judge the soundness of those decisions, so you can suggest your ideas for improvements in programs or government actions, so you can evaluate government officials’ performance, and so you can guard against corruption and conflicts of interest.

You can help by asking questions of your government officials and by encouraging openness. Politicians and government officials are more likely to take the trouble to create open systems and practices if they know it is important to their constituents.

Tell them that your assessment of their performance includes their record on open government...

Michigan has plenty of tough transparency and accountability challenges ahead, including how courts handle public access and fees for electronic records...

Remember that you have a stake in Michigan’s freedom of information laws. How much you are permitted to know about your government directly affects the quality of your government, your schools, your courts, your job, your freedom and your life.

 

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