ERIC FREEDMAN: Keeping public information public

Fight for press freedom faces privacy advocates

Lawmakers are split about what public information should be public and which public meetings should be public.

Access to information is essential to press freedom. And with World Press Freedom Day ahead on May 3, the political debate sometimes focuses on conflicting views about personal or business privacy on one side and citizens’ right to know what their government is doing on the other.

Several pending proposals would make it easier to find out what state and local agencies do.

For example, Rep. Brandon Dillon, D-Grand Rapids, wants the Legislature to obey the Freedom of Information Act – something lawmakers have long resisted. A bill by Rep. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, would limit the sometimes-excessive fees that some agencies now charge for copies of public records.

Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, wants to place the Catastrophic Claims Association under the open meetings and freedom of information umbrella. That’s the private nonprofit group responsible for covering medical expenses for the most seriously injured vehicle crash victims.

And a proposed Legislative Tax Expenditure Review Commission would have to obey the Open Meetings Act under bills by Dillon and Sen. Hoon-Yung Hopgood, D-Taylor.

Meanwhile, however, other bills would make government less transparent.

For example, a bill by Rep. Kurt Heise, R-Plymouth, would limit the release of audio-recordings of 9-1-1 emergency calls.

Another by Rep. Hugh Crawford, R-Novi, would hide pistol license applications from public view.

Freedom of information and open meetings laws are important to businesses, journalists, community groups, unions, researchers and individual citizens who want to hold government officials accountable for their actions, open government advocates say.

Ruling in an Ionia County case, the Court of Appeals ordered a lower court judge to decide how much money the State Police must pay in attorney fees to a woman who was wrongfully denied access to a videotape. The State Police had told Nancy Prins that the video of her traffic stop no longer existed but later presented the tape as evidence at the traffic trial.

In a Van Buren County decision, the appeals court ruled that Columbia Township officials violated the Open Meetings Act by failing to give proper public notice when they changed their meeting schedule. But the court refused to award attorney fees to Kenneth Speicher, who challenged the township.

And in Ingham County, a judge rebuffed an attempt by Attorney Gen. Bill Schuette to dismiss an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit stemming from State Police closure of the Capitol during last December’s consideration of a controversial right-to-work law.

However, the judge did not rule on the merits of the ACLU’s open meetings lawsuit.

A new nonprofit organization, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, began work this spring, saying the state “has some of the nation’s weakest requirements for government ethics and accountability.”

It said a 2012 study of all 50 states by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International gave Michigan an overall failing grade, placing it 44th in the country.

“It flunked in the categories of executive accountability, judicial accountability, political financing, legislative accountability, lobbying disclosure, ethics enforcement agencies, and redistricting, among others, and got a `D’ for public access to information,” the coalition said of

Michigan’s ratings.

The coalition said it will offer “journalists, citizens and others interested in open government the opportunity to get financial help for legal fights against public officials or governments that don’t comply with Michigan’s open records and open meetings laws.”

 

Eric Freedman directs Capital News Service at Michigan State University’s School of Journalism.

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