Fighting for our right to FOIA

Fighting for our right to know
COurtesy photo

Here's one of those truths that ought to be self-evident: In this democracy, governments — federal, state, and local — are our governments. They belong to "We the people," after all.

We elect those who run them, and fund their salaries and everything they do. That means, or should mean, that we have a right to see what they are up to.

Today's politicians don't always believe that. Arlan Meekhof, the thuggish state senate majority leader, has systematically killed any attempt to expand the public's right to know, just as he has with every effort to make voting easier.

"You guys are the only people who care about this," he sneered at a reporter who asked him why he wouldn't even allow a vote on expanding the Freedom of Information Act.

Meekhof doesn't even pretend to care about democracy. Once, politicians of both parties knew how important it was. That was never more utterly clear than in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal of the early 1970s. President Richard Nixon had declared himself essentially above the law; tried obsessively to hide what government did from its citizens, and actually once said, "It's not illegal if the president does it."

After he was driven out of there, both federal and state governments went to work enacting a series of "sunshine laws" designed to make governments truly open for inspection by those who they are designed to serve — us.

To help do that, the lawmakers of that day gave us a very important tool: The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA.

Every state and the federal government passed some version of FOIA laws. In Michigan, anyone, whether a journalist or a barista, can write to any government and ask to see any records, salary information — anything.

The government legally is supposed to reply within five to 10 business days, and then get you the information.

Those framing those laws thought that in some cases, it would be fine to charge the citizens reasonable copying fees. There was also agreement that certain information ought to be private, such as personnel matters and medical records.

Military secrets also don't have to be released under FOIA, for obvious reasons. But everything else should be public information... except some of those in power don't think so.

Consequently, they do everything they can to avoid complying. Last year, Sarah Cwiek, a reporter for Michigan Radio in Ann Arbor, sent Macomb County a FOIA request asking for, as she put it, "a bunch of information about the county jail," such as how many people have been booked into it, and what sort of crimes they were charged with.

Macomb replied that it would take three months to dig up that information, that they don't compile statistics that way, and that they would charge $631,000 for making copies, etc. Their claim was, as she learned, bullshit.

"This is all information they're supposed to provide to the U.S. Department of Justice," she later told another reporter. In the end, she found that much of what she wanted had already been published in the Macomb sheriff's annual report.

They just didn't want to do anything to help the press, or inform the public. That's a fairly amusing example, but the ability of government to suppress the public's right to know became far more ominous with the Flint water crisis.

Most states make their legislators' records and emails, etc., accessible to the public under FOIA laws. Not Michigan. Every other state except Massachusetts makes their governor's communications subject to public scrutiny. Not us.

This was painfully apparent when the Flint water crisis blew up, and the question became, "What did Rick Snyder know and when did he know it?" Though people who saw him every day were clearly talking about how awful the water was for months, they and he claim they'd never told him about it.

Snyder eventually did release what he said were all the relevant communications on the subject — but we have no way of knowing, since we don't have legal access to his records.

Then suddenly, in April 2016, we learned that a mysterious outbreak of Legionnaires' Disease had killed a dozen people in Flint in 2014 and 2015, during the same time as the people were being given bad water from the Flint River.

We were asked to believe the governor knew nothing about that either until just before the state went public with the information — even though other records show his key aides, again, had been discussing it.

That was too much for even the members of the Michigan House of Representatives, who a year ago unanimously passed a ten-bill package that would have opened the legislature and governor's communications to FOIA inspection.

Meekhof, who has no more interest in democracy than in higher education, wouldn't even let the Senate vote on it.

But times may be changing. Meekhof, of whom fellow Republican Candice Miller once said, "Term limits can't come fast enough for some people," will be gone forever in January, except to scuttle around Lansing's dark places as a lobbyist.

And State Rep. Gary Glenn of Bay County's Williams Township, commonly ranked as the most conservative Michigan legislator, has introduced a new bill that would force governments to produce any documents subject to FOIA within 60 days.

Currently, while officials have to respond to requests, there's no legal deadline for turning over the material.

When I ask Glenn whether he thought Meekhof would kill his bill too, he admitted that was a possibility. But in that case, he was sure that someone would reintroduce it next year.

"I think the next governor, whatever party they're from, will be open to signing" bills that expand our right to know, he says. For perhaps the first time ever, I hope Gary Glenn is right.

Shot from Hell: Brian Ellison, the wannabee Libertarian candidate for the U.S. Senate, has managed to get himself a lot of free press attention with one screamingly crazy idea.

Ellison, who tried for years to become a cop (no one would hire him, it seems) is now a "construction estimator" for a Royal Oak firm, and although he says he hates government, wants a senator's salary.

And he has a signature issue: He wants people to donate money to buy homeless people shotguns to defend themselves. "We'll work through a firearms dealer and get the background checks done and get them outfitted with an inexpensive shotgun and a handful of shells," he said.

The 40-year-old Ellison, who says he doesn't support any restrictions on gun ownership, including for the mentally ill, thinks this would make the homeless safer. He also thinks the survivors of the high school shooting in Parkland who are speaking out against guns in schools are ignorant children who are "being used as pawns" by lobbying groups.

Well, anyone who has spent time with the homeless could tell you that it would be hard to come up with a worse public policy idea, but then, we are living in an age of lunatics.

Yet there may be hope in the fact that Ellison can't seem to get enough signatures to get on the ballot; that GoFundMe twice shut down his effort to raise money for shotguns and — perhaps especially — that despite his claim to have been "consistently scoring at the top of exams and oral interviews," nobody would give this character a job as a cop.

I don't want to even think about what might happen if anyone were to challenge his figures on a construction project.

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