Monday, March 17 — If you’ve been watching what goes on in Washington and some statehouses across the country, you might wonder if there’s any issue that everyone should be able to agree on whether they are conservative or liberal or libertarian, Democrat or Republican, pro-this or anti-that.
There is: It’s the need for transparency in all levels of government.
As we observe Sunshine Week in Michigan and around the country to encourage openness in government, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG) is urging citizens and public officials to seek transparency in the operations of their local and state governments, their schools and universities, their federal government and their courts.
You can do this by supporting Michigan legislation that would amend the Michigan Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to make government information more accessible by limiting fees and discouraging delays.
Or by supporting a bill that a Republican lawmaker proposed to create an Open Government Commission to hear FOIA appeals. Or by supporting a bill that two Democratic lawmakers proposed to expand FOIA coverage for the legislative branch so it is more in line with the broader coverage that applies to the executive branch.
MiCOG — a non-profit, tax-exempt organization open to citizens, journalists and associations concerned with open government and freedom of information — urges passage of that pending legislation.
You also can make a difference by letting your local officials — from the mayor to school board members — know that it’s important to you to know how your tax dollars are being spent and how they are making decisions about classrooms or parks or roads or snow removal or trash collection.
It’s important for you to know this so you can independently judge the soundness of those decisions, so you can suggest your ideas for improvements in programs or government actions, so you can evaluate government officials’ performance, and so you can guard against corruption and conflicts of interest.
You can help by asking questions of your government officials and by encouraging openness. Politicians and government officials are more likely to take the trouble to create open systems and practices if they know it is important to their constituents.
Tell them that your assessment of their performance includes their record on open government.
Let them know this should not be a partisan issue, and that you want information regardless of which party or group is in power. If you’re in New Jersey, you don’t have to be a Democrat to want to know more about a big bridge closure in that state. In Michigan and Louisiana, you don’t have to be a Republican to want information surrounding the corruption charges that resulted in convictions of mayors in New Orleans and Detroit.
Michigan has plenty of tough transparency and accountability challenges ahead, including how courts handle public access and fees for electronic records, whether juvenile criminal records should be public or secret, and how much secrecy should be allowed in new mental health courts, including convict records and data revealing rates of recidivism for the program.
Remember that you have a stake in Michigan’s freedom of information laws. How much you are permitted to know about your government directly affects the quality of your government, your schools, your courts, your job, your freedom and your life.
Charles Hill is a member of the board of directors of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government and a former Michigan bureau chief for The Associated Press. To join or find out more about MiCOG, go to http://www.miopengov.org or follow MiCOG on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/MIOpenGov or Twitter @miopengov.