LANSING, Mich. — Legislators on the Michigan House Oversight Committee discussed ways to improve the state's Freedom of Information Act on Thursday.
Advocates for reform say that Michigan is known for its lack of government transparency.
"Michigan is known for not having great open government," said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association. "Our governor and our legislature are not subject to FOIA.”
The Freedom of Information Act allows the general public access to government records like contracts, financial documents and data on local schools and even police departments. But it's a particularly important tool for journalists.
“Journalists are the watchdogs for all of us as citizens and taxpayers," McGraw said. "They keep an eye on what government officials are doing—where your money is being spent and often the way to find answers to those questions is through FOIA.”
McGraw said that the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted just how difficult it is to access information through FOIA in Michigan.
“I’m hearing from reporters delays, a lot of that, costs have been high. Those are the two biggest ones," she said.
State Rep. Steven Johnson, who chairs the House Oversight Committee, said he has also heard complaints about timeliness and cost.
“Some people are waiting over a year to get things back from governments," he said. "The penalties and fees it takes to pay for this sometimes are unreasonable and sometimes it just seems that the people they’re talking to in government view this as a burden and not as a public duty.”
McGraw said that she would like to see fixes to the FOIA system.
“I feel like they need to change the word 'respond' to 'produce.' If you FOIA a particular record, they should produce it within five days or 10 if they get the extension," she said. "And then finally, this is something that’s not a fully formed idea, but we've talked about for years, and that would be the formation of some sort of open government commission to be the arbiter of appeals as opposed to having to go to court to get your costs down.”
Johnson said lawmakers haven't proposed legislation to fix issues within the FOIA system but Thursday's hearing is the first step to addressing them.
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