FOIA exemptions for Michigan governor, lawmakers breed distrust
Transparency demands that FOIA apply to the governor and the legislature
You see it almost daily on social media and in the comments section of news reports. You hear it in conversation at the coffee shop. People attribute the worst of humanity to those they differ from in public policy and politics. We live in a low-trust culture.
Often there is a rumor of a politician behaving in a shady manner, and the chatter starts immediately. “Who owns him?” “Someone has dirt on her.” And off we go on the conspiracy train.
It is easy to blame and dismiss people as tin-hat conspiracy theorists, uneducated, or simply stupid. Often, though, the problem isn’t the person who wants so desperately to ensure that corruption is not occurring behind the curtain. In these uncertain times, everyone wants to know the deck is not stacked against them and that there is a level playing field.
In Michigan, much of the blame for worries about corruption and conspiracy is baked into state law. Michigan is one of only two states that does not apply Freedom of Information Act requirements to legislators or the governor.
Chad Livengood addressed this in a Detroit News column and gave an example: If a lobbyist emails a Detroit City Council member to ask for that person’s vote on a real estate deal, the email is subject to FOIA. But if the same lobbyist asks a state representative or senator for a vote on a tax subsidy, the public official is not required to divulge the message, even if asked in a FOIA request.
Lack of transparency breeds distrust. Distrust produces speculation, and when speculation spreads from one person to another, it leads to rumors and conspiracy theories. When Gov. Gretchen Whitmer was campaigning for her first term, she declared she would work to ensure full transparency in state government.
That never happened. When Whitmer locked Michigan down, closing entire industries and forcing schoolchildren to stay home, away from peers, she said we should trust the science. She told us that officials were using science and data to decide what to do. What science, and which metrics? To this day, we don’t know. She won’t say. And that’s a problem.
When the Mackinac Center for Public Policy asked the governor’s office for this information, officials would not disclose it. Because Whitmer’s office is not subject to FOIA and declined to be fully transparent, we will probably never receive all the information. That would change if the Legislature passed a bill to require FOIA for itself and the governor, and Whitmer signed it.
Michael Van Beek, the Mackinac Center’s director of research, wrote in May 2020 about the confusion that comes from a lack of transparency:
This lack of information is surprising, because Gov. Whitmer promised to share data with the public. At a virtual town hall on April 2, she said, “We’re working really hard to make sure that we are transparent, so that people have got accurate information with which to make decisions.” While the state makes some data available to the public related to the coronavirus, Gov. Whitmer has yet to explain how this data is informing her decisions.
The Detroit Free Press reported in March about the governor’s promise of open records, which goes unfulfilled.
Imagine how much better served Michiganders would be if we had the facts in front of us. This is why CapCon fights for the truth and asks residents of Michigan to join the fight. Legislators and Whitmer bragged for the past two years about their bipartisan efforts to create and sign into effect nearly 1,000 laws.
And yet, not one of those laws addressed these officials’ commitment to being transparent with the people who entrust them with power, provide their paychecks and vote them into office.
January 2023 is a new term for the Legislature. There will be new representation, and we call on those in service to us to make good on the promise of open government.
Give the people of Michigan the opportunity to be fully informed in the decision-making process. If you want to limit rumors, conspiracy theories and gossip, this would be a good start.
CapCon will continue its mission to hold Michigan government accountable to the people and report when it falls short.
Jamie A. Hope is assistant managing editor of Michigan Capitol Confidential. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.