FOIA, Open Meetings Act need updating for 21st century
“A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” ~James Madison
The Mackinac Center has long been a proponent of open government, which is one of the attributes that attracted me to the Center when I signed on last summer. We think it’s now time to increase our efforts to improve transparency laws and equip citizens with training to ensure the accountability of elected officials.
Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act and Open Meetings Act are Watergate-era laws that badly need updating for the 21st century. These laws were adopted before email and computers became prevalent. Too often new technology is put up as a wall when government wants to prohibit or restrict what the public has a right to access.
We plan to publish a comprehensive study that recommends changes to the FOIA and OMA statutes. We can already identify several needed improvements: faster response times by government agencies; reducing costs that can be charged by government entities; stronger penalties for agencies that improperly withhold public information; and improved access by the public to electronic records.
The time is right for modernizing FOIA. In fact, sunshine laws are currently the subject of legislative interest — a bill introduced by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clark Lake, would standardize how much agencies can charge individuals when turning over public records. Having been charged $6.8 million for a single document request, we think House Bill 4001 is a meaningful step in the right direction. In order to communicate effectively with lawmakers on this and other issues, we have elected to file the necessary lobbying paperwork at the state and federal levels.
A good law is useless if people don’t know about it. The Center will host a series of community events aimed at raising awareness of common problems encountered by those who attempt to request government records and provide information to those who want a better understanding of how FOIA and OMA work.
Two weeks ago I joined a group of open government advocates for the 2013 Freedom of Information Summit, where I shared some of the insights we’ve gained as frequent requesters of public records. The Center has also joined the Michigan Coalition for Open Government in order to partner with others who share a vision of transparency.
Finally, the Mackinac Center Legal Foundation will identify litigation opportunities that would improve the enforcement and interpretation of the state’s sunshine laws. For example, the Center and the Michigan Press Association filed a joint amicus brief at the Michigan Supreme Court in a case involving publicly funded school district computers being used to conduct private union business.
The Center’s ongoing efforts to improve government transparency include MichiganVotes.org, school spending databases, Michigan Capitol Confidential articles and a push for school districts to post their checkbooks online. More recently, the Center and the Michigan Press Association issued a joint statement about the impact of Proposal 2 on FOIA had voters approved it last November.
FOIA is an essential tool for Mackinac Center analysts. With it we have exposed corruption, analyzed government spending, and discovered the lenient school contract that allowed drunken teachers to keep their jobs.
Transparency is one of the few genuinely bipartisan issues in Lansing. Free-market supporters, progressives, news organizations, civil libertarians — we may not agree on the priorities of government, but we all agree on the importance of accountability.