LANSING, Mich. (Michigan News Source) – Back at the beginning of the pandemic, Michigan Democrat Governor Gretchen Whitmer released her 38th Executive Order of the year on April 6th, 2020, this one focused on FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) deadlines.
In her order, it said that “strict compliance” with the required response periods for FOIA were suspended. FOIA allows the public to ask for and receive government records after paying an administrative fee – but her order shielded timely FOIA requests from being done so they wouldn’t compromise the “health and safety of this state and its residents.”
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Whitmer’s order allowed for the temporary extension of responses to FOIA requests, including not requiring government employees to report to the office to open the mail or check the fax machine to receive the FOIA requests. It also allowed the in-person search of records and production of public records to be deferred until the expiration of the order, basically making any FOIA request null and void as long as the governor wished.
The Executive Order was eventually rescinded in June of the same year. However, according to the Detroit News, some governments and public bodies kept up the practice of delaying FOIA requests, creating a “big problem for the media and everyday citizen trying to keep their government accountable.”
What many people are not aware of is the fact that the governor’s office and Michigan state legislators are not subject to the FOIA law at all under any circumstances.
FOIA law went into effect through the federal government in 1966 and although states across the country also adopted their own FOIA laws, Michigan is still only one of two states that exempts the executive and legislative branches from the Act. The other state that does so is Massachusetts.
However, Bridge Michigan reports that things may change soon to bring more transparency into the state with both Republican and Democrat lawmakers talking about changing the state’s current FOIA laws and agreeing on the general concept of providing more access to public information.
Senator Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) has said recently that the FOIA issue will be introduced in a few months – but only after the Senate Elections and Ethics Committee, which he chairs, works through the implementation process for ballot Proposals 1 and 2, which included new financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers, nine days of early voting and other changes to election procedure.
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He went on to say, “The framework for our FOIA reform is there and has been there for almost eight years now. There’s definitely a new energy for this on my end now that we’re in a position to really get this thing done.”
There are Republicans who are board with the issue too. Rep. Bill G. Schuette (R-Midland) and a group of House Republicans re-introduced bills on Wednesday that would subject the governor’s office to FOIA and the Legislature to LORA (Legislative Open Records Act). Also included was legislation to require financial disclosure for lawmakers as outlined in Proposal 1, creating a bipartisan ethics committee and other transparency reforms.
Schuette said about the changes to have more transparency in the state, “Michigan has long been toward the bottom of national rankings for transparency in government. It’s unacceptable, and it’s time we forgo this status quo. These proposals are steps in the right direction.”
Moss said about the bipartisan effort, “I feel like we’re still in the same car – I think we just shifted who’s driving it. I intend and hope to keep this project as bipartisan as possible…we’re not trying to politicize this issue at all.”
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