It is well-documented that the state of Michigan is one of the worst states when it comes to transparency and openness in government. Now, with the Flint water crisis, the issue has been brought to the forefront.
To kick off Sunshine Week, a celebration of Americans' access to public information, Stateside welcomed Jane Briggs-Bunting, the president of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, to the show.
The average citizen may not be aware, but Michigan is among a small handful of states where the governor’s office and the state Legislature are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This means that documents and records can be kept from the public, except in rare occasions.
“Frankly it’s a lot easier to do things in secret,” said Briggs-Bunting. “As soon as the public is involved then there’s more accountability, then you have to be more careful about what you do and you definitely have to start following the law.”
In 1976, a law was passed that made the governor, the lieutenant governor and the courts exempt from FOIA requests. In 1986, Attorney General Frank Kelly added to that by making the Legislature exempt.
“None of our three branches of government at the top level are covered by this … which is crazy, frankly,” said Briggs-Bunting.
According to Briggs-Bunting, many legislators were unaware that they were exempt until the sex scandal involving state Representatives Cindy Gamrat and Todd Courser. Gathering information for the investigation of that scandal was difficult because they lacked the legal authority to gather it.
Listen to the full interview below to hear more about the issues surrounding transparency in Michigan government and what efforts are being made to improve it.