Special Report: Trust and Transparency

 

As Michigan taxpayers we pay the salaries of our governor and state legislators and we elect them to office.

So why are they not accountable when we have questions?

The Newschannel 3 I-Team looked at trust and transparency in Michigan government and whether it's time for a change.

Michigan was recently ranked worst in the nation in government transparency and accountability by the Center for Public Integrity.

The sex scandal between representatives Cindy Gamrat and Todd Courser highlighted the problem and sparked outrage over how little the public was able to find out about the case.

"I don't think that's right, we should be just as transparent as we mandate local governments to be," says Representative Jeremy Moss of Southfield.

In Michigan, the governor and legislators are exempt from the Freedom of Information Act. They do not have to show the public their emails, visitors logs, budgets or any other documents they choose to keep secret.

Michigan is one of only two states where that's the case.

That meant during the Courser and Gamrat controversy only government investigators had access to what was going on behind the scenes.

"It really showed a need for FOIA laws to be applied to the state legislature so that you guys can know what we're doing here in Lansing," says Representative Moss.

Moss has introduced a new bill to eliminate the exemption for the governor and legislators, he says after the recent scandal the time is right to take action.

"I think when you do operate in the shadows, there's some sort of level of deception that's presumed by the public. We should be as open and transparent as possible."

Lisa McGraw with the Michigan Press Association she thinks there is new interest in getting rid of the exemption.

"It does seem to have become a bit of a football in the past several years, but we're hoping to work with both sides going forward on this issue in light of certain legislators that were expelled, slash, resigned," says McGraw.

But Representative Moss says the bill is being held up by Republicans and Speaker of the House Kevin Cotter.

"The vast majority of work that the legislator does is constituent work. I'd say 90% of the phone calls our members get is people looking for help with their taxes, people looking for help with Medicaid payments or welfare. And that involved a lot of private information," says Cotter spokesman Gideon D'Assandro.

D'Assandro, says they're concerned with keeping constituent information private. But we asked why it couldn't be redacted like it is in police reports or other government documents.

"If there's a way to do that, it would be pretty novel and so we'd have to see a proposal that could accomplish that. He said he's be open to looking at one, we just haven't seen that yet," says D'Assandro.

"That's just a crutch not to move this bill forward because local units of government have the ability to redact that information, and they do, and they're still compliant with FOIA laws...so that is not really a hurdle to opening up good government here in Lansing," says Representative Moss.

But Republicans also point out that when Democrats controlled the Governor's Office and House in 2010 they also did not take any action to get rid of the FOIA exemption.

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