Engaging with…The Freedom of Information Act

By Brad O’Neil

As we near the end of Sunshine Week, a week that celebrates the importance of open government nationwide, there is no better time to reflect on the state of government transparency in Michigan than now.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), signed in 1966, was drafted with the intent of establishing a standard of transparency to which our government is held and was designed to give citizens timely access to information about how their government operates. Since then, many states have enacted FOIA laws of their own. Unfortunately, they don’t always live up to their purpose – especially in Michigan.

Under Michigan’s FOIA law, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, judiciary, their offices, and all legislators are exempt. Yes, the very individuals and offices that conduct the business of our state, which the law was meant to make available, don’t have to comply – a fact that is only true in one other state. Boy, do we keep good company.

Information obtained through FOIA requests has been instrumental in holding our elected leaders accountable. The controversy surrounding Aramark, a private company hired to provide food services in Michigan prisons, for example, has almost exclusively been brought to light through such requests.

While some recent progress has been made standardizing the costs of FOIA requests, Michigan is still far behind when it comes to consistent and equitable application of FOIA law.

Having already tried twice before, Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) recently introduced legislation to amend Michigan’s FOIA law to include those currently exempt and Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren) has done the same in the Senate. It’s not just Democrats who have made an effort, however. In 2009, the current Lieutenant Governor, Brian Calley, introduced similar legislation while he was a state Representative. It failed then, too.

It’s time to call on our legislators to change Michigan’s FOIA law so it will finally live up to its stated purpose of granting citizens access to the information they have a right to see.