Senate GOP fails at FOIA

Emails among members of Gov. Rick Snyder’s staff, sent inside and outside the executive office, shed light on exactly what happened in the Flint water crisis — revealing the unfiltered thoughts of a government in turns in denial at what it had wrought, defiant at the notion of its culpability, and scrambled in its response.

The governor’s office released those emails voluntarily, months after the Flint water crisis started, in large batches that provided fodder for teams of reporters to comb through, painstakingly tracing the shape of the state’s largest humanitarian crisis.

These emails, so crucial in understanding Flint, would have been public information much, much sooner if the governor’s office were subject to the same public records disclosure requirement as every other elected executive in the state of Michigan — from the mayor of Detroit to township trustees.

But Michigan’s governor and state Legislature are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. And thanks to the state Senate, that’s not likely to change, not any time soon.

After easy passage in the state House of Representatives, a set of bills with bipartisan support that would have largely repealed the Legislature and governor’s FOIA exemption is dead on arrival in the state Senate, Republican Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof said this week. Why? Meekhof didn’t offer much insight, except to tell Capitol news service Gongwer that there was “a lot of work” to do on the bill package; his spokesperson didn’t respond to a Free Press inquiry this week for more information.

Government documents, created on the public’s dime and in service of public need, should be available to the public.

It’s so evidently true that we’re struggling to understand why Meekhof and his caucus would shoot a reform so obviously in Michiganders’ interests down.

When else might executive and legislative compliance with FOIA help the public understand what our representatives do in our names?

Consider the flurry of spending by the DeVos family — matriarch Betsy DeVos is now President-elect Donald Trump’s choice to helm the U.S. Department of Education — after the state Legislature voted this summer against creating a committee to regulate traditional public and charter schools in Detroit. There’s no question that the DeVos family wields significant power in Michigan politics — so what might the chatter around those contributions look like?

We’ll never know, because those emails — or any internal records created by state lawmakers around campaign contributions — aren’t subject to FOIA.

Or how about the seeming abuses documented in a Bridge Magazine story, which showed how frequently state lawmakers propose or vote on legislation that’s in their own professional self-interest? A chiropractor voting to allow chiropractors to prescribe physical therapy, something a patient must currently see a physician for; the head of a real estate management company proposing legislation that would make it more difficult for tenants to sue over damage caused by bed bugs; a log trucking company owner voting to lift regulations on log trucking.

There’s no law against such apparent self-dealing, and lawmakers are expected, though not required, to recuse themselves from votes on matters they’ve got a stake in. Such recusals, Bridge found, have dropped 80 percent since 2012.

But imagine how that might change if lawmakers’ written communications were subject to FOIA.

The Freedom of Information Act isn’t a silver bullet — there’s nothing stopping any legislator who wants to keep business out of the FOIA-able domain from picking up a phone. But it’s an important check on the folks charged with doing the people’s business.

State Senate Republicans still don’t get it. Why?

Free Press (Detroit)

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