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Democracy, dying behind closed records

Feb 6, 2017

There are a lot of things that Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof doesn’t like. They include unions, especially teachers’ unions. The state’s rule requiring the payment of decent, prevailing wages to workers on state construction jobs. Meekhof is also very much against anything making it easier for people to vote, including making it easier to get absentee ballots.

But he also seems especially determined not to allow citizens to have access to e-mail correspondence about state business carried on by the governor and state legislators.

Ten days ago, he was part of a panel of legislators that appeared before the Michigan Press Association’s annual meeting in Grand Rapids. Last December, the state House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed legislation that would have subjected the governor’s communications to Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA laws.

They also created something called the Legislative Open Records Act that would have done the same thing for legislators. There were a fair amount of exemptions, more than I would have wanted, such as letters to constituents, except for lobbyists, and confidential personal and financial records. But it would have been a vast improvement.

Nearly every other state subjects their governor to FOIA, and most of them also apply FOIA to their legislatures. But not our embarrassingly unethical Michigan, which has been judged worst in the nation for transparency and accountability.

The need for the press and the public to have access to this information was strongly proven by the Flint water crisis. Governor Snyder voluntarily released what he said were his relevant emails, just as Richard Nixon released what he said were the relevant transcripts of his White House tapes. At least one of them wasn’t telling the whole truth.

We don’t know whether the state Senate would have passed the expanded FOIA rules as well last year, but there is reason to suspect they would have. But Arlan Meekhof, who also doesn’t seem to like democracy very much, refused to allow a vote on the issue, and if he has his way, will undoubtedly do the same this year.

Detroit Free Press columnist Brian Dickerson asked Meekhof about this when he appeared at the newspaper convention, and he replied contemptuously, “You guys are the only people who care about this."

Well, he’s right about something.

We do care. It is our job to care, because we think people should have the right to know what their government is doing for them or to them. Meekhof has to leave the legislature at the end of next year, and wouldn’t appear to have any political future.

He would have liked to run for governor, it soon became clear that he had, to put it mildly, insufficient support. His lack of a college degree closes other options.

A cynic might think the Senate majority leader is worried we might find out about him and what he’s done, should his records should be made public. We cannot now know.

But we do know that democracy dies behind closed doors and locked file cabinets. We need as citizens to demand that our senators be allowed to vote on whatever new Freedom of Information Act bill the state House of Representatives passes this session.

Otherwise, how can we hold them accountable for what they do?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.