March 11 2013 12:00 AM

A week dedicated to government transparency launches with announcement of new Michigan group

Monday, March 11 — The Lansing City Council’s recent closed session meetings to discuss a confidential legal opinion about a Council member’s broken computer is a perfect example of why we need Sunshine Week.

For weeks, local media struggled to uncover why exactly the body was meeting in closed session. Questions to the Council and the City Attorney’s Office — and requests for documents — about why the body was meeting in secret were denied.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative that pushes for transparency and freedom of information from public entities like schools and all levels of government. It starts today and lasts through the week.

The program started in Florida in 2002, but has since spread across the country to help spark conversations about the importance of the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts — two key tools in keeping government accountable.

In Michigan, Sunshine Week is marked by the launch of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government. The group provides funding for journalists and citizens to help fight legal battles when governments fail to comply with the Open Meetings Act and the Freedom of Information Act. The group also seeks to continue dialog and educational opportunities about the importance of openness in government.

According to a press release from the organization, Michigan could use the help:

Michigan received an overall grade of ‘F’ and ranked 44th out of the 50 states in a 2012 state integrity investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. It flunked in the categories of executive accountability, judicial accountability, political financing, legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement agencies, and redistricting, among others, and got a ‘D’ for public access to information.”

It’s no secret that the news industry is strapped for cash these days. Financial woes have forced media outlets to cut both staff and circulation. So it comes as no surprise that most organizations don’t have the financial wherewithal to have lengthy court battles over public documents and records. But with the help of a $2 million grant from the Knight Foundation, MiCOG can help both journalists and regular citizens tango with public entities in court when they’re not forthcoming with public information.

“Citizens and journalists are having greater difficulty obtaining public documents from government agencies, deterred by long delays in responses and high fees,” MiCOG President Jane Briggs-Bunting said in a statement. “Most individuals and smaller news organizations don’t have the resources to mount legal challenges. MiCOG can help with that.”

Anyone can join the coalition for a yearly fee. Some of the founding groups of the coalition include the Mid-Michigan and Detroit chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Michigan State University College of Law First Amendment Law Clinic.