Sadly watching the sun set on transparency, again


Sunshine Week has mercifully set over the state Capitol. For the next 51 weeks, the media are spared from being reminded how lawmakers enticingly toy with expanding the state’s open record law … only for nothing to change.

Since 2016, the House majority has advanced expanded open records laws, only to watch them disappear in the Senate.

This year, the Democratic-led Senate took the lead. Its proposed Freedom of Information Act expansion, sent to the Senate floor last week, would make an open records law apply to the governor and the Legislature.

The public could finally ask the governor for any record in her possession … EXCEPT anything written prior to the bill becoming law, anybody’s notes, or anything related to appointments, suspensions, removal proceedings, commutations or budget recommendations.

We also wouldn’t be able to get anything protected by executive privilege or that could broadly impact the governor’s security or internal investigations.

Any civil action against the governor? Couldn’t touch that.

Any document fewer than 30 days old is a no-go. Advice, opinions and public policy recommendations would also stay off limits. That’s called “work product.”

Basically, anything that isn’t a letter from a lobbyist or a public calendar over a month old could still not be disclosed.

Soooo … it’s like Christmas without Christ, Santa, presents, Christmas trees, carols, cards, lights or, really, anything.

But the governor could fulfill a campaign pledge by opening herself to FOIA if it passes. Hooray.

For the Legislature under these bills, it’s much the same. For some reason, we still couldn’t get letters from constituents. Remember “work product?” That’s off limits, too.

Citizens could get House financial records, but the House and Senate rules already allow us copies.

As we slow-clap the Senate Oversight Committee action, a few House Democrats rolled out some new ideas.

Any travel, tickets or gifts a legislator received but didn’t pay for would need to be disclosed. Who gave the Senate majority leader tickets behind home plate for a Tigers’ playoff game? Who did the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit host in Israel this year?

We’d also know which public official has 501(c)4 and 527 dark money accounts. The state couldn’t mandate the release of these forms, which the IRS governs. But at least we’d all know what is out there.

Under this bill, many outstanding questions over influence would be answered … if they’re allowed to move.

I’m not holding my breath.

Outside of admitting to being jaded from year after year of disappointment, there is the hard, cold reality that transparency in government isn’t exactly a burning issue right now.

Sure, if you ask about it, voters are for it.

But when put against immigration, the economy, abortion, education, health care, transportation, the environment and all the rest, a more open government isn’t a radar blip.

With no Watergate-like scandal to coalesce the public into bipartisan disgust, there’s no outcry for more public disclosure.

Your Average Joe cares what the governor and the Legislature are doing long enough to utter the words “they’re all corrupt” and moves on.

The media enjoy the game of finding compelling content and digging into the inner workings of state government, but that’s their job.

Meanwhile, those public agencies that must follow FOIA are finding their own ways around complying, partly due to public indifference and partly because government officials would prefer to disclose as little as possible.

Pages of redactions. Ridiculous invoices in the thousands of dollars. Months of delays. Uneven compliance. In some cases, challenging people to take them to court.

Only the minority, whoever it is, cares enough to raise the flag for more transparency. Since they’re not in any decision-making position, of course they want to know what’s going on.

The majority would prefer everyone who doesn’t need to know be kept in the dark. Why ruffle feathers? Why stir the pot?

If there are no repercussions for keeping things secret, secret is what we’ll continue to get.

(Email Kyle Melinn of the Capitol news service MIRS at

Michigan house of representatives, transparency, government


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