COLUMN: Time to move forward with government transparency reforms

Categories: Bellino News

Everyone agrees that we’re badly in need of more government accountability.

Michigan’s government transparency laws rank dead last in nationwide studies. The biggest problem is that our open records laws do not apply to the governor’s office or the Legislature.

Right now, the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) allows people to review or obtain copies of most public records from local governments and school districts in Michigan. But the law allows the governor and state legislators to hide in the shadows.

The inability for people to hold their elected officials accountable takes a serious toll, and it seems faith in government is at a record low.

So why don’t we do something about it?

The simple answer is, I’m trying my darndest.

One of the very first pieces of legislation I introduced after taking the oath of office in 2017 was part of a bipartisan package of bills to increase transparency in state government.

Our plan would make the governor subject to the Freedom of Information Act and place the Legislature under similar transparency standards by establishing the Legislative Open Records Act.

While LORA mirrors FOIA in almost every way, a different appeals process is needed in order to ensure the law is enforceable. This is because FOIA appeals are routed through the court system, but the Michigan constitution prevents the judicial branch from interfering with legislative affairs. LORA addresses the constitutional concerns by ensuring appeals regarding legislative record requests are handled by an impartial non-partisan entity. This will ensure the public has a fair and effective way to appeal improper denials and excessive fees.

The way I see it, the people of Monroe and Wayne counties put their trust in me to represent their interests at the Capitol. They deserve access to important information about how their tax dollars are spent and the deliberation that goes into each vote we cast.

We can’t expect people to have faith in their government if they don’t have a way to hold their elected officials accountable. This plan is the first step we must take to ensure residents have access to all of the information they need and deserve.

The Michigan House passed the bills unanimously in March 2017, only to have the legislation collect dust in the Senate until the end of our legislative session last December.

I haven’t given up. Making government more transparent continues to be a top priority.

The plan was re-introduced in the House early this year, and I eagerly signed on as a co-sponsor. Once again, the House recently voted unanimously to approve the entire bill package.

Now, it’s the Senate’s turn.

Enacting these much-needed reforms will bring more transparency to everything we do at the Capitol and help restore the public’s confidence in our state government. I urge my colleagues in the Michigan Senate to move this plan forward so we can give the people the transparency they deserve.

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State Rep. Joe Bellino is serving his second term in the Michigan House representing the 17th District, which covers portions of Wayne and Monroe counties, including the cities of Monroe, Flat Rock and Rockwood, the townships of Ash, Berlin, Exeter, Frenchtown, London and Sumpter, as well as a portion of Monroe Township.