Flint water crisis could help push governor FOIA, legislative transparency bills


Gov. Rick Snyder has released thousands of pages of executive office emails voluntarily in the wake of the Flint water crisis, but legislation pending in the House would make disclosures routine by subjecting the governor to the Freedom of Information Act.

Bipartisan bills were introduced last month by Rep. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield and Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, would subject the governor to FOIA, an act which details response timelines and which records are subject to disclosure upon citizen request. The bills would also create a separate Legislative Open Records Act to create similar disclosure requirements for members of the legislature.

The bills met with mostly praise from transparency advocates, including the group Common Cause Michigan. Executive Director Melanie McElroy said the group had collected 70,000 signatures in support of making the governor respond to FOIA requests in the wake of the Flint water crisis, which exposed the city's children to lead in the water.

"Parents with sick children couldn't get basic information about the safety of their water," she said.

American Civil Liberties Union Investigative Reporter Curt Guyette has been speaking to groups nationally about his role in helping uncover the Flint water crisis, and said some attendees were surprised to learn that Michigan's governor and legislature were not subject to FOIA already. This was highlighted in a recent report that ranked Michigan as the least transparent state in the nation.

"In a lot of ways the Flint crisis illustrates how important FOIA is and how important it is that it be expanded," Guyette told the House Oversight and Ethics Committee on Thursday.

The portion of the proposal subjecting Gov. Rick Snyder's office to FOIA is pretty straightforward, essentially looping the governor into the definition of a public body subject to the existing act. But those who testified had some questions and concerns about the new LORA proposal subjecting the legislature to a different set of open records rules. Under the bills creating LORA communications on personal computers, records regarding bill drafting and communications with constituents are not subject to disclosure.

James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, questioned why appeals on LORA requests would go to the legislature and not the courts.

"When I see the legislature deciding to be in my mind acting as the judiciary in this case... that's not following what I understand as the separation of powers," Clift said.

McBroom said a citizen could still go through the court system in regards to a LORA request, but Clift said that was not clear in the legislation.

One other component advocates wanted addressed was cost. Mackinac Center Executive Vice President Michael Reitz said the free-market think tank filed hundreds of open records requests per year.

"The number one problem that we run into is the cost of obtaining public records," Reitz said, asking for costs to be addressed in the bills.

McBroom said there would be more hearings on the bills and some of these details in the upcoming weeks.

"We are trying to put our best foot forward here that gathers the most possible transparency to the process," McBroom said.

Asked about the concept of opening his office up to FOIA on Thursday, Snyder said he looked forward to the ongoing legislative discussion but did not offer a position on the legislation.