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Flint water crisis highlights lack of transparency with Michigan government

Jan 26, 2016

In most states, if journalists or citizens want to hold our elected officials accountable, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) is an important tool in our political toolbox.

However, Michigan is among a small handful of states where the governor’s office and the state legislature are exempt from the FOIA. This means that documents and records can be kept from the public, except in rare occasions.

Governor Rick Snyder recently volunteered to release a batch of emails concerning the Flint water crisis, which highlighted the fact that Michigan has been ranked dead last in the country in transparency.

Melanie McElroy, the executive director of Common Cause Michigan and Mike Reitz, the executive vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, joined Stateside for a panel discussion on the lack of transparency in the Michigan government, how and why the FOIA exemptions were made, and what can be done to fix it.

“People are demanding full transparency,” said McElroy. “The people of Flint have a right to know why their water was poisoned with lead, why their children are ill. And you can’t do that by picking and choosing which emails you make public and when that happens.”

McElroy and Common Cause Michigan are seeking an overhaul of the current system and promoting FOIA reform.

But should the governor’s office be subject to FOIA? Reitz thinks that it should be.

“The Mackinac Center has recommended that in the past and we think generally it is a good idea to have the governor’s office treated the same way as other branches of government or other agencies under the Freedom of Information law.”

Reitz added that the situation in Flint has highlighted the need for more government transparency for the greater good of the people of this state.

“The justification for FOIA, unfortunately, is very clear and very apparent with situations like the one we have now with the Flint water crisis,” said Reitz. “Decisions were made that will affect people’s lives in horrific ways for years and years to come, and the people of Flint and the people of Michigan justifiably want to know who made these decisions and how were they made and why did we get it wrong?”

McElroy says that the water crisis may be the issue that motivates the public to pressure our elected officials to make changes to our transparency laws.

“Folks are trying to think ahead,” said McElroy. “How can we prevent a crisis like what we see in Flint from happening in other cities? Our infrastructure is not only crumbling there … we’re bound to see more issues. We have other emergency managed cities. There’s a lot that can happen. And I think the more transparency we have on the front end, the more elected officials and their staff might stop and think, ‘if our emails and our documents are subject to public scrutiny, we may behave a little differently, we may make decisions a little bit differently.’ So I don’t only think that FOIA reforms and other transparency measures are helpful as a reaction to crises, but they might help things from happening in the future.”

Listen to the full interview to hear both guests examine the state of Michigan’s FOIA laws, how the system can be improved and why they agree that a FOIA request shouldn’t have a $6.7 million price tag. 

CORRECTION: An earlier version stated that Michigan was one of two states, along with Massachusetts, to exempt the governor's office and legislature from FOIA. It has been changed to say that Michigan is one of a small handful of states with such exemptions.

- Josh Hakala, Stateside Staff