At last week’s State of the State speech, Gov. Rick Snyder promised to release his official emails related to the Flint water crisis from 2014 and 2015 — which covers a period after the decision was made to switch Flint’s water source.
But on WDET the next morning, the governor reneged on that promise, telling Stephen Henderson that he would not release any emails from his executive staff, who were intimately involved in the decision-making process.
“They had the perspective that they were under the umbrella and shield because they’re part of the executive office,” Snyder said.
Michigan is one of just two states in the nation that exempt the Governor’s Office and the Legislature, as well as their staffs, from the Freedom of Information Act. The state ranked 50 out of 50 in a recent State Integrity report for ethics and trans parency laws.
What’s ironic is that the governor’s top two communications staffers — Communications Director Meegan Holland and Press Secretary Dave Murray — are former journalists who had previously championed the use of Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act to inform the public.
Holland (who worked for Booth Newspapers and served as Lansing bureau chief for MLIVE) was a founding board member for the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.
In 2013, Holland wrote an op-ed for City Pulse titled "Open government is good government."
“Michigan needs more open government,” Holland said. “Federal, state and local governmental agencies have many good people who believe their employers should be transparent. But not enough of them.”
Before joining Snyder’s administration, Dave Murray was a reporter with the Grand Rapids Press. In a 2009 interview, Murray explained how his use of FOIA discovered an increase in the number of school administrators earning more than $100,000 per year near Grand Rapids.
“We can gather that information for them. It’s rewarding for me to perform that role,” Murray said. “In the end our goal was to deliver information that readers — who are generally taxpayers — would find interesting, useful and in context.”
So, what does Murray think about FOIA now that he is serving as press secretary for the governor of Michigan?
Earlier this month the watchdog group Common Cause Michigan submitted a FOIA request to the Governor’s Office, seeking all of his documents on the Flint water crisis. Murray refused to release the information.
The governor "is proud of the efforts his office has made to increase transparency and accountability, including dashboards featuring metrics for each department and creation of a citizen’s guide to how state and local governments spend money,” Murray said to the Flint Journal. “We’re always focusing on continuous quality improvement in this area.”
It’s worth pausing to note that Snyder’s dashboards make no mention of the Flint water crisis or lead poisoning.
Holland and Murray were hard-working journalists who spent their careers working to inform the public.
That’s why it’s so disappointing to see them now hiding behind the governor’s FOIA exemption, keeping essential information on the water crisis from the people of Flint — who are still in the dark about what the governor and his senior staff knew, and when.
(Zack Pohl, communications director for the Michigan AFL-CIO, served as communications director for former U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer's campaign for governor.)