State lawmakers announce open records bill package

Michigan one of two states that projects governor's office from FOIA

LANSING, Mich. (WOOD/AP) — In Lansing on Wednesday, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle unveiled a new 10-bill package that would allow citizens and journalists to file open records requests with the governor’s office and the legislature.

The Flint water crisis has re-ignited the debate over Michigan’s open records laws. Michigan is one of just two states that don’t subject the governor’s office or the legislature to Freedom of Information Act requests.

In 1976, then-Rep. Dave Hollister was the cosponsor of the original Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). He told 24 Hour News 8 on Wednesday it’s time for a change.

The original bill was written in response to the then-President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal.

“I was so offended by the closed nature of local government and I found that it was true all the way up and down the system,” Hollister said.

“There was just a cleansing that needed to happen,” he continued. “And it was fun to be a part of it.”

FOIA laws were passed around the county. Here in Michigan, it wasn’t initially clear if the legislature and the governor was included.

“I think in order to get the votes, (we) had to have some compromise and many lawmakers at the time didn’t want to be open or subject to that act,” said Mitch Irwin, who was a state senator at the time.

That is until 1986, when, then Irwin asked the state attorney general, Frank Kelley, for an opinion about whether the legislature or governor’s office were subject to FOIA. Irwin said it was prompted by a question he was asked by a member of the media.

“Frankly, I didn’t know. So when you don’t know and there is some uncertainly and ambiguity, you do and can ask an attorney general’s opinion,” Irwin said.

The attorney general determined that the term “public body” in the FOIA law did not include the governor’s office or the legislature.

Despite multiple attempts to change it, the law has remained that way ever since. Irwin says it’s time to change it.

“If you have nothing to hide, you have no concern over opening up the FOIA act,” he said.

Hollister agrees:

“It’s unfortunate it’s taken something as tragic the Flint water to expose hypocritically it was for the governor and the legislature to exempt themselves,” he said.

Both men are hopeful that this time, the FOIA expansion will pass.

“Maybe we’ll complete the reform we started 30-40 years ago,” Hollister said.

The new package of bills could be introduced in the House as soon as Thursday.

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