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Commentary

An unlikely hero for Michigan journalists

FOIA
Vincent Duffy
/
Michigan Radio

There’s nothing wrong with having principles. Not everyone does; back in the bad old days, there was a U.S. Senator from the South who supposedly used to tell audiences, “Well, them there’s my positions, and if you don’t like ‘em – well, I can change ‘em.”

That’s not exactly honorable, but it did serve to get him reelected. Nowadays, however, we seem to have the opposite problem; too often we decide what is right or wrong depending on whether our side or theirs did it. So today I want to salute a lawmaker who is going against the expected grain and deserves praise for it.

Republican State Representative Gary Glenn of Midland is commonly rated either the most conservative member of the legislature, or close to it, especially on social issues. He has said things on topics like same-sex rights that I, and many others, find abhorrent.

Jack Lessenberry

But he announced yesterday that he will introduce a bill, perhaps today, that everyone who cares about our right to know and the First Amendment should rush to support.

Glenn wants to force governments to release information as required by the Freedom of Information Act, known as FOIA, within 60 days after government has granted the request.

What we sometimes forget is that governments at all levels are indeed our governments, funded with taxpayer dollars, and that we — any of us — have a perfect right to know anything they are up to and what they are doing with our money. The only exceptions should be things like military secrets, which could do great harm in the wrong hands, and certain personnel records.

But those in power don’t much like sharing information. In the 1970s and 80s, both the federal government and the states passed all sorts of what were called “sunshine” laws, including FOIA statutes, designed to force openness and transparency in government.

In Michigan, governments are supposed to reply within five business days, though they may ask for 10 if necessary. They are also allowed to charge a modest fee for copying documents.

But more and more, governments have been dragging their feet on FOIA requests and attempting to charge outrageously high fees for complying. Forty years ago, neither Republicans nor Democrats would have put up with this.

Now, however, the GOP establishment seems dead set against the public’s right to know. State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof has expressed contempt for the idea of expanding FOIA to include the governor and the legislature. He has refused to allow bills doing that to come before the senate, even after the water poisoning scandal in Flint.

And Attorney General Bill Schuette, the leading candidate for the Republican nomination for governor, indicated in December that governments can essentially drag their feet for as long as they wanted on FOIA requests. Not long after that, Representative Glenn found out that one township supervisor in his district is refusing to comply with a FOIA request at all.

“It seems to me that the Freedom of Information Act is meaningless if there is no required deadline for response,” Glenn told reporters Wednesday. Well, he is totally right.

The moment he introduces this bill, it should have the full support of the ACLU and every journalist and press association in this state.

And we should praise his patriotism for doing so.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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