Michigan House Republicans
Rep. Bierlein: Sunshine Week shines unfortunate light on continued inaction
RELEASE|March 13, 2024

State Rep. Matthew Bierlein, of Vassar, is supporting additional, needed government transparency in the Michigan House and said a broad resolution simply acknowledging a need for open government does not go far enough.

Bierlein called on Democrats in the House to move forward with House Bills 5422-27, which strengthen transparency requirements for Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and improve the process for obtaining government records.

The legislative package, which Bierlein has co-sponsored, would expand FOIA to ensure the governor, lieutenant governor and the Legislature disclose documents and communications. Michigan is just one of two states where the Legislature and the governor’s office are not subject to FOIA or another similar open records requirement. The requirements would be the same as what other elected officials and employees in other areas of state and local governments are currently expected to follow.

“Sunshine Week is always a time in the Legislature to shine a light on the need for greater access to public records and encourage more transparency from government. But every year it’s more like Groundhog Day because state government continues to drag its feet and remain content with its dismal standing nationally on transparency,” Bierlein said. “These proposals would be a tremendous start on showing people throughout our state who demand more transparency and accountability that Lansing is hearing those calls and acting on them – instead of just acting like it’s something that needs to be addressed. These bills also work to make our state more attractive to people who are looking to live and work here by giving them confidence that their government will be transparent to the people it is representing.”

Democrats in the House this week adopted a commemorative resolution declaring the week of March 10-16 Sunshine Week in the state of Michigan, but the declaration holds little to no legislative power compared to specific, detailed plans that:

  • Create the Open Government Commission to oversee FOIA requests and appeals. The commission would review all FOIA requests pertaining to the state Legislature and governor’s office. Members would include legislators, governor appointees, as well as representatives from the Michigan Association of Broadcasters, Michigan Press Association and Michigan Coalition for Open Government to ensure a fair process. The commission would have authority to investigate complaints, issue binding opinions, and impose penalties.
  • Strengthen the public’s ability to take action when government improperly withholds information. HB 5422 would streamline the FOIA appeals process, shorten the response time for appeals by limiting it to 10 days after receiving the written appeal, allow for civil action if a public body fails to disclose requested information, ensure that attorney fees from appeals are completely covered by successful appeals, and allow for a reduction of fees that exceed the amount permitted under the public body’s available procedures and guidelines.
  • Add accountability measures surrounding FOIA exemptions. When a public body chooses to invoke any exemptions, it would be required to provide a complete statement explaining why the exemption applies and why the public interest in nondisclosure outweighs the public interest in disclosure in the particular instance. It also clarifies that contact information for officials, employees, contractors, or vendors of a public body are not exempt.
  • Streamline FOIA procedures. HB 5426 would require public records to be provided in electronic format unless it would significantly increase the fee charged to the requestor. If production in electronic format would increase the fee by more than $20, or 10%, whichever is greater, the public body shall give the requester an option of electronic or alternative format. It also limits the circumstances for which a fee can be charged for reviewing and removing exempt information from public records.
  • Establish clear responsibilities for FOIA coordinators. HB 5426 clearly establishes the documentation a FOIA coordinator is required to keep, including all written requests for public records, all the public body’s responses to requests for public records, records of all dates on which requested public records were produced, and records of all fees charged to produce public records. The plan would also require public bodies to post FOIA records on their websites. Those without websites must make those records available for inspection by the public.
  • Increase penalties for public bodies that don’t comply with FOIA. Fines currently range from $2,500 to $7,500. The new proposal increases the maximum fine to $25,000 for public bodies that willfully or negligently fail to comply with FOIA requests. It also increases fines for any public body that violates FOIA multiple times within a two-year period, setting minimum fines at $7,500 for a second violation, $10,000 for a third violation and $15,000 for a fourth or subsequent violation.

“This should be common ground in the House given the current legislative split,” Bierlein said. “Republicans are ready to get these long overdue reforms done for the people, and I am hoping Democrats choose to act instead of playing politics with an issue that’s a priority for an overwhelming number of people we all represent.”

HBs 5422-27 remain in the House Government Operations Committee.

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