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"Clouds continue to hang over Michigan’s government transparency laws," declares MLive Editor

Updated: Oct 31, 2023


Michigan's government transparency is one of the worst in the country, in part because the Governor's Office and legislature are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Ben Orner | MLive.com


by Patrice Johnson | October 31, 2023


"Michigan ranked 47th out of 50 for anti-corruption measures for public officials according to the Coalition for Integrity,” wrote John Hiner, MLive Editor, in a letter to viewers four days ago. He added, "Michigan remains at the bottom of the bottom for government openness among the 50 states.” His hard-hitting letter is an important read, and it gives rise to a question:


Why are state lawmakers sitting on their hands when it comes to implementing Proposal 1’s financial disclosure requirements for elected officials when, meanwhile, they are rushing through changes to election law that go far beyond the also-passed--though less popular and allegedly unconstitutional--Proposal 2?

Three ballot referenda amended the Constitution of Michigan in 2022. Proposal 1 passed with 66% of the popular vote. Props 2 and 3 garnered 60% and 57%, respectively.



However, constitutional experts claim Proposal 2 violates both the U.S. and the state constitutions because it circumvented legislature input to change election law. Eleven state legislators filed a federal lawsuit in September, arguing that state officials in the executive branch usurped state legislators’ constitutional rights to regulate the “times, places, and manners” of elections.



Why the hurry to enact arguably unconstitutional and court-contested changes to election law while, at the same time, ignoring the looming December 31 deadline for enacting the undisputed and overwhelmingly popular requirements for elected officials to provide greater transparency and financial disclosure?


Could it be that government officials are hungry to implement Proposal 1’s extension of legislator terms to 12 years in either the House or Senate, but they have little appetite to codify into law the proposal’s popular requirement for elected officials to be more transparent and provide their financial statements?


“Nearly 9 out of 10 Michigan adults believe that taxpayers should have access to the meeting calendars of state representatives and their correspondence with outside organizations as well as the budgets of these office holders,” Hiner wrote in his editorial letter below.


Patrice Johnson, chairs Michigan Fair Elections (MFE) and Pure Integrity Michigan Elections (PIME). A former teacher, she has founded five successful companies and served as senior executive with a Fortune 100 technology company. In 2017, she authored the book, the Fall and Rise of Tyler Johnson, the basis of a PBS documentary film, Finding Tyler. Questions or comments? Contact patrice@mifairelections.org.

. . .



By John Hiner and Wes Allen | Oct. 26, 2023


The 2024 elections are not far off, and if the past is any guide candidates will say a lot about how they’ll improve transparency in government. Unfortunately, getting elected must cause amnesia.


For proof, all you need to know is what the legislature has done to enact financial disclosure legislation called for when voters passed Proposal 1 in 2022: Nothing.


They have until Dec. 31 to honor the will of the people, and as MLive reporter Ben Orner pointed out this week, these elected officials don’t seem in a hurry to do it.


Michigan has one of the worst environments in the country by those measures, and that is why I am pleased to be on the Public Policy Committee of the Michigan Press Association. There, I am joined by MPA leaders and fellow editors of the major news organizations in Michigan: The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Bridge Michigan, Hearst Midwest Media Group and Gongwer News Service.


As a group and as individuals we continuously advocate for improving access to government processes, decision-making and public records. This week, as a part of that cause, I am turning over my column to MPA President Wes Smith.

Elected officials, heed his message: We need action, not promises.


. . .


When there was a change in leadership in Michigan’s legislature earlier this year, hope rose again in the hearts of citizens who want a more transparent state government.


Maybe, it was thought by those citizens, the time has finally come for Michigan to join almost every other state in expecting their legislature and governor to be subject to our open records law. Maybe, they thought, adding hope upon hope, new laws would be passed requiring other government officials to respond to records requests in a timely manner without outrageous fees. But, alas, it’s nearly November and there has not been even a small ray of sunshine in our state house or governor’s mansion.


Michigan remains at the bottom of the bottom for government openness among the fifty states. The Center for Public Integrity gave the Great Lakes State an “F” grade in 2015. In 2020, Michigan ranked 47th out of 50 for anti-corruption measures for public officials according to the Coalition for Integrity.


News reports of former House Speaker Johnson convicted of accepting bribes and Inkster Mayor Wimberly indicted on bribery charges, along with numerous other accounts of unethical behavior on the part of elected officials in our state, illustrate the importance of openness and transparency in government.


In 2022, Michigan voters overwhelmingly supported a ballot initiative to require state elected officials to provide financial disclosure statements. In a recent study, done on behalf of the Michigan Press Association, there was more data showing Michigan voters want more information about what their elected officials are doing. Nearly 9 out of 10 Michigan adults believe that taxpayers should have access to the meeting calendars of state representatives and their correspondence with outside organizations as well as the budgets of these office holders.


Leaders from the Michigan Press Association have recently reached out to legislative leaders and Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer requesting action with specific amendments to improve the open government climate in our state.


The Michigan Press Association has drafted – and MLive Media Group and its newspapers fully support – the following crucial measures to bolster transparency, accountability, and integrity in Michigan government:


1. Extending Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to the executive and legislative branches.

2. Requiring far more timely response to FOIA requests. Citizens and media outlets routinely endure very long and unnecessary delays in obtaining clearly public information from government agencies.

3. Preventing exorbitant fees for FOIA responses. Michigan transparency is severely restricted by often outrageously high fees public bodies attempting to charge for FOIA responses.


As citizens of Michigan, you can hold your government accountable. We urge you to contact your legislators and tell them to move forward to improve Michigan’s open government laws to allow taxpayers the access they deserve when it comes to the people’s business. It’s high time to get Michigan out of the basement when it comes to ethics in government. We implore you to act now.


###

John Hiner is the vice president of content for MLive Media Group. If you have questions you’d like him to answer, or topics to explore, share your thoughts at editor@mlive.com.


Wes Allen is president of the Michigan Press Association.


 

Contact your representative and senator. Urge them to pass the financial requirements as mandated by constitutional referendum Proposal 1, 2022

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