Michigan Legislature leaves Sunshine Week in the dark without reforming transparency laws

LANSING, MI — Another Sunshine Week has passed in Michigan without any meaningful reform to the state’s weak transparency laws.

Sunshine Week has become a national celebration among news outlets advocating openness and transparency in government. In Michigan, the week annually calls on lawmakers to explain why they haven’t passed measures to submit themselves and the governor to the same public records laws required of state legislatures and governor’s offices across the country.

“There are well-meaning proposals making their way through the legislature, but I want to be absolutely sure that there are no unintended consequences of these measures,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey. , R-Clarklake, in a statement Thursday when asked if he supports the various measures currently in the Legislature.

“That’s something I’m going to continue to look at,” Shirkey said of legislation that would lift public records request exemptions for state lawmakers.

There are several ethics-related bills that have yet to pass through legislative committees before potentially being put to a vote. Bills to create an open archives statute in Michigan and extend freedom of information law to the governor’s office have been before the full Senate for consideration since last year.

Aside from general calls for action from lawmakers on current legislation pending movement from the party leadership, reform efforts came to nothing this week.

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) sets out the record retention and disclosure requirements of public agencies, local governments, and departments of state. However, the Michigan Legislature and the offices of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor are not included in the FOIA.

A 2019 analysis by MLive of financial disclosure policies in all 50 states found that of the 48 states that currently require some form of asset disclosure, all but 15 publish lawmakers’ responses in a searchable online database. . Even in those states, members of the public seeking disclosure reports can obtain the documents through a public records request.

The only other state to exempt the governor’s office from FOIA requests is Massachusetts, which is also one of the few states, including Michigan, where lawmakers are exempt from document requests.

Last year, the House of Representatives approved a bipartisan package, Bills 4383-4392, to expand transparency laws to require the lieutenant governor and governor to release public records upon request and to create an Open Documents Legislative Act to establish similar procedures for the Legislative Assembly.

The package still needs to be considered by the Senate.

“It’s Sunshine Week, and our bipartisan transparency plan is well tanned as it sits in the Senate,” State Rep. Mark Tisdel, R-Rochester Hills, said in a press release. “Last year, the House approved a plan to bring the records of the Legislature and Governor to light – unanimously. The Senate should quickly embrace our efforts to make our government more transparent to the people of our state.

Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan and Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield dedicated their speeches in the Senate Thursday in honor of Sunshine Week to discuss the value that continued attention to transparency and accountability government can mean to the public.

“The opportunity I have had over the past seven years to work with (Senator Moss) and many other lawmakers on open government reforms is inspired by the determination we have to provide the public with as much reasons and as much assurance as possible that they can continue to believe that their government institutions have their best interests in mind and that we are not covering things up,” McBroom said.

Moss and McBroom have advanced legislation to subject lawmakers and the governor to public records requests since the 2015-16 legislative session.

“Michigans shouldn’t feel like they’re in the dark when it comes to what their government is working on, which is why the vote on legislation to create open lines of communication and government transparency is such a priority,” McBroom said.

Bills passed in the House last year would establish an ethics committee in each chamber and require MPs to disclose their financial interests. The legislation would also ban lawmakers from serving as lobbyists for two years after leaving office. A proposal would also allow the Legislative Assembly to suspend legislators’ compensation for unethical behavior or frequent absences.

“It’s no wonder the people in this building who know about these vulnerabilities are so easily able to exploit these vulnerabilities,” Moss said during a speech in the Senate Thursday on the stalled reform efforts of the government. State. “How many more legislative scandals do we all have to endure while information that should be publicly available is only exposed during a criminal investigation?” Moss said.

Democrats have pointed to the alleged personal and financial improprieties of former Republican House Speaker Lee Chatfield as the latest example of how exempting the Legislature from retaining and disclosing records can damage the trust of the public.

House Democrats announced Friday they are demanding an investigation into alleged ethical misconduct and misconduct during Chatfield’s tenure as president and will introduce a resolution next week calling for a bipartisan select committee to conduct it.

“(Chatfield) may have committed terrible abuses of office during his elected tenure and the people of Michigan deserve to know how this alleged network of corruption operated,” said state Rep. Joe Tate, D. -Detroit, about the project. investigation. “If there are any members of our government who would oppose a thorough, bipartisan investigation into our former Speaker of the House, let them stand in our way in the broad daylight of the House floor, otherwise I look forward to a robust investigation the investigation begins in earnest.

State Rep. Tyrone Carter, D-Detroit, echoed Tate’s sentiment, “This investigation should be an easy decision for any member of the Legislative Assembly who has nothing to hide about their involvement in the alleged network. of financial exploitation and corruption of the former president.”

Carter said the discretion for that investigation “rests solely” with Republican House Speaker Jason Wentworth, Chatfield’s successor.

“Let’s not forget that the President could have started this investigation the day the news broke,” Carter said.

LEARN MORE ABOUT MLIVE:

Letter from the Editor: This Year, You’re Helping Us Spread the Sunshine of Open Government

A police raid on the home of Lee Chatfield’s former chief of staff

Michigan attorney general joins investigation into Lee Chatfield sex abuse allegations

Michigan House is assisting police with the Chatfield investigation, not currently planning their own

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