So the Mackinac Center and the ACLU walk into a bar together …

While you might think the two organizations would be mortal enemies — we championed right-to-work for two decades; they’ve gone to court trying to overturn it — we’re on the same page when it comes to the importance of government transparency.

That’s why the ACLU — along with the Michigan Press Association, The Center for Michigan/Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Coalition for Open Government — teamed up with the Mackinac Center to host four town hall meetings across the state in July and August to highlight the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts.

“The Mackinac Center and the ACLU don’t agree on much, but it’s a lot more than you think,” Mike Steinberg, legal director for the ACLU of Michigan, told the audience at the first town hall meeting on July 17 in Jackson.

The Center, as part of our Open Government Initiative, invited the eclectic group of panelists to join us for the town hall meetings because an open government is a better government.

“We’ve long been a proponent of such transparency, and now we think it’s time to increase our efforts to equip citizens with training to ensure the accountability of elected officials,” said Executive Vice President Michael Reitz.

The FOIA and OMA statutes are Watergateera laws — written in the “mimeograph age,” President Joseph G. Lehman recently joked — that badly need updating for the 21st century.

“Those laws were written before everyone had email and a computer,” Reitz said. “Too often government is able to use technology as a firewall when it wants to prevent people from getting information they are entitled to.”

Reitz said the Center will conduct a comprehensive study that will recommend changes the Legislature should make to the laws, including needed improvements on how fast a government entity must respond to a FOIA request and what they can reasonably charge, as well as stronger penalties for agencies that wrongfully withhold public information and improved access for citizens to electronic records.

This isn’t the first time the ACLU and the Center have partnered on an issue, however. ACLU of Michigan Executive Director Kary L. Moss spoke at one of our Issues & Ideas forums in 2002 on the topic of civil liberties, and she was also a speaker for our 2005 high school debate workshops. Alvin Bronstein, director emeritus of the National Prison Project at the ACLU Foundation, spoke at a March 2009 Issues & Ideas forum on alternative prison sentencing for non-violent offenders, a reform that could save Michigan taxpayers millions of dollars.

The Center and the Michigan Press Association have also partnered on transparency projects in the past. We filed a joint amicus brief at the Michigan Supreme Court in 2010 in a case involving teachers using taxpayer-funded computers to conduct union business via email. The MPA also joined us in a statement last fall about the potential damage Proposal 2 would have had on FOIA had it passed.