Michigan lawmaker pushes for legislature to stop excluding itself from transparency laws
LANSING, Mich. (AP) — A Michigan legislative leader has released his state emails and a weekly meeting schedule, hoping to reinforce his push for the Legislature to no longer exempt itself from the state’s public records law.
House Minority Leader Tim Greimel on Friday disclosed a week’s worth of emails and meeting calendars from February at the request of The Associated Press, which sought the information from legislative leaders in all 50 states. Michigan’s three other top lawmakers – House Speaker Kevin Cotter, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof and Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich – denied the request, as did Gov. Rick Snyder.
Michigan’s 40-year-old Freedom of Information Act explicitly exempts the governor’s office from records requests. And a 1986 opinion by the state attorney general says lawmakers also intended to exclude themselves, though financial documents such as expense reports are subject to disclosure under the state constitution and legislative rules.
Greimel, a Democrat from Auburn Hills, said he decided to make public his records to “lead by example” and because “it’s the right thing to do.”
“It’s long past time that the public that is ultimately the boss of legislators has access to government documents in the Legislature and the executive branch,” he said.
The AP asked for the records in advance of Sunshine Week, a celebration of access to public information. Calls for more open government in Michigan possibly have never been more intense than now, after state regulatory failures led Flint’s water to be contaminated with lead, a toxin that can severely affect mental and physical development, especially in young children.
The disaster broke open in September just weeks after two legislators were forced from office over an extramarital affair, cover-up attempt and allegations of misused public resources – which also prompted renewed focus on the open records law.
Snyder has voluntarily released more than 21,000 pages of emails and other documents related to Flint water and in January told journalists that he would “love” to speak with legislators about subjecting the executive office and Legislature to FOIA. The Republican governor cited the state’s low ranking in government transparency nationally.
Yet despite calls from Democrats, liberal groups and open government watchdogs to expand FOIA, the legislation may not gain enough traction to become law.
Meekhof, a West Olive Republican, is “not enthusiastic” about it, spokeswoman Amber McCann said.
He supports disclosing legislative records but has concerns that releasing emails and other correspondence could invade the privacy of constituents, she said. Asked about redacting identifying information such as names and phone numbers – which the law allows – McCann suggested the “average person” still might not be comfortable with his or her request for assistance becoming public.
She also said lawmakers should be able to freely consider issues without lobbyists filing FOIA requests to see behind-the-scenes correspondence and gain an advantage. Other states exempt “working papers” and other correspondence, McCann said.
Those pushing to extend FOIA to the governor and Legislature hope that more citizens are questioning why Michigan’s exemptions exist after probably first learning about them during the high-profile Flint disaster.
“I don’t think the public’s finding that so acceptable. We’ve just had great illustrations in the last year of why this needs to go away,” said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association.
Bills have been introduced in each of the last four legislative sessions – first by Republicans when Democrats were in power and later by Democrats while the GOP has been in the majority.
“The party not in power is interested in doing it and the party in power isn’t. I’m hoping the climate has finally changed,” McGraw said.
Bipartisan legislation is expected to be introduced in the House as early as this week.
Cotter spokesman Gideon D’Assandro said the Mount Pleasant Republican is open to considering proposals but “refuses to play along with political stunts that so often use this issue as a step ladder.”
Ananich spokeswoman Angela Wittrock said the Flint Democrat supports making the governor and Legislature subject to FOIA.
For the period covering Feb. 1-7, Greimel released 476 pages of emails from his official District 29 account and eight emails from his personal state account.
His weekly calendar showed him flying to the Caribbean island of St. Thomas on Saturday, Feb. 6, for a convention hosted by the Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers and the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois. Greimel was asked to participate in a panel discussion regarding the industry’s policy and regulatory issues and stayed until Feb. 8, spokeswoman Katie Carey said. She said Greimel “paid his own way” and spent no public funds. It was not immediately clear if he used money from his leadership political action committee, personal funds, or another source.
During the week, Greimel was scheduled to have four meetings with organized labor leaders and speak at a union’s political summit.
Greimel also was to meet with individual lawmakers, lobbyists, “education stakeholders,” host a call with House Democratic leadership, and participate in a conference call about bills in the Senate Education Committee. The GOP-led panel that day approved bills opposed by labor officials and Democrats that would make it easier to deem teacher work stoppages as illegal strikes.