Demand transparency this Sunshine Week | News, Sports, Jobs
“The liberties of a people have never been and never will be secure, when the dealings of their rulers can be hidden from them.” —Patrick Henry
“A popular government, without popular information, nor means of acquiring it, is only the prologue of a farce or a tragedy; or, maybe both. —James Madison
Sunshine Week begins on Sunday, but unlike most proclaimed days, weeks, or months, that’s no cause for celebration.
This is the time to air grievances and make demands.
Sunshine Week, launched as Sunshine Day by the Florida Society of Newspaper Editors in 2002, coincides with the March 16 birthday of James Madison, a founding father who was one of the principal architects of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. The American Society of News Editors took the program national in 2005.
Each year, newspapers across the country mark the occasion by using public records laws to publish stories highlighting government activities, publishing articles highlighting areas where the government lacks transparency, and publishing editorials. highlighting weaknesses in state transparency laws.
In Monday’s edition of The News, we’ll mark Sunshine Week with a feature highlighting local governments that don’t post minutes or agendas online, documents the public needs to keep an eye on the activities of their government.
But Sunshine Week isn’t just for journalists.
It is also an opportunity for all residents to demand more transparency from their government.
And the Michiganders certainly deserve more transparency. Rank after rank, our state scores poorly when it comes to openness.
According to the Pioneer Institute’s Financial Transparency Rankings in 2019, a zero. From the Center for Public Integrity in 2015, good last. According to Sunshine Review in 2013, an overall C+ (state government got a B-, counties got a C, cities and school districts each got a C+).
The poor rankings happen, according to the transparency advocates who made the ranking, because Michigan has no financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers, has a lackluster enforcement of ethics for state employees and exempts both the legislature and the governor’s office from Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, the law which states that most government records belong to the public and therefore governments must provide such records to the public upon request.
To these low marks, I would add that the FOIA and the Michigan Open Meetings Act have serious shortcomings, with too many vague exemptions that allow governments to act in secrecy and not release documents. Governments are too quick, for example, to meet behind closed doors for discussions with lawyers (only allowed in certain circumstances) or for personnel matters (only allowed if the employee requests it), or to withhold documents due to perceived confidentiality concerns or due to ongoing investigations (both permitted only if the need for confidentiality outweighs the public interest in disclosure).
Even if someone thinks their government has wrongfully requested an exemption, state law places too much of a burden on the public.
Appeals for a denied FOIA request, for example, are usually made to the city council or council of the county or township of the same government that denied the request to begin with. After that, the public’s only recourse is to file a costly lawsuit. Residents can recover court costs, but must have the money in advance. How many people can afford to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on a deal they might not win?
When governments can act in secret, they tend to, and that opens up all sorts of dark possibilities of what they might do – with your tax money or with the policies that affect you – when you don’t look. not.
So this Sunshine Week, I encourage everyone reading this to write to our lawmakers and demand more transparency.
Some places lawmakers could start:
∫ Apply FOIA laws to the Governor and Legislature.
∫ Require financial disclosure from legislators, the governor, secretary of state, attorney general, and all executive department heads so that we can assess whether any of their actions constitute a conflict of interest.
∫ Create an independent agency to review FOIA appeals at no cost to residents. People in Michigan should not have to pay to access public records that belong to them.
None of these actions are that difficult, and other states are doing all of these things without major disruptions to government functions or overly burdensome public costs or whatever other horrible things that opponents of transparency say will happen if we increase openness of the government.
So this Sunshine Week, let’s do it, lawmakers, so residents can really know what’s going on in their government and we can make sure the people we elect are truly serving our best interests.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-354-3112 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.