FOIA, a state law that took effect in 1976 following a federal enactment in 1967, allows individuals in Michigan to submit requests to access public information. Michigan has ranked poorly in issues of transparency, in part because of weak or absent state laws about public records and disclosures.
HB 4149 would expand FOIA requests to include the governor’s office and the state legislature. The Committee on Michigan Competitiveness is currently evaluating the bill in the House of Representatives.
In a phone interview, state Rep. Yousef Rabhi (D–Ann Arbor) said he believes the legislation is a priority and feels encouraged to see bipartisan support on the issue.
“We live in one of the worst states when it comes to transparency in government, we have been fighting this issue for years,” Rabhi said. “House Republicans and Democrats are starting to work together on legislation around the Freedom of Information Act expansion.”
LSA junior Enrique Zalamea, president of the University of Michigan’s chapter of College Republicans, echoed this sentiment in an email interview and said he fundamentally believes in holding the government accountable through FOIA, agreeing that more transparency is needed in Michigan’s state government in order for these values to be protected.
“I believe that government officials, as public servants to the people, must be obliged to a higher standard of transparency,” Zalamea said. “The people cannot hold their publicly elected officials accountable if crucial information regarding their performance and activities remain private — with more transparency in our government, we the people have more influence in making sure the people we elect lead this state efficiently.”
Rabhi said part of the push for this recent activity regarding FOIA has come from Michigan voters who want to hold the state government accountable for its actions, particularly in light of the Flint Water Crisis.
“This is a very important issue that really resonates with voters in Michigan,” Rabhi said. “People believe that government should be open, they believe it should be transparent and this is one of those issues where we need to jump in and make sure that happens.”
The state House passed a similar package to expand FOIA to government officials with bipartisan support last session, but the measure died in the state Senate when Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R–West Olive) refused to bring the package to a vote, the Detroit Free Press reported.
In a response to comment, Meekhof’s office said his reason for not supporting the earlier legislation was out of concern that sensitive constituent information could be exposed through FOIA.
“The Majority Leader is opposed to legislation that would make constituent correspondence available under FOIA,” a representative from the office of Meekhof wrote. “Constituents often contact legislative offices seeking assistance with the state and may supply personal or financial information in seeking to resolve issues and the Senator does not think such information should be available for review by the public or media.”
Rabhi disputed Meekhof’s claim and said sensitive constituent information would continue to be protected from FOIA as a part of any legislation passed in the House.
“Certain sensitive constituent information like medical information, financial information, social security numbers would be redacted if an email or communication were released,” Rabhi said. “That privacy concern I believe is dealt with.”
The other bill, SB 0069, would work to expand restrict FOIA further by exempting company secrets and bids from FOIA requests in order to promote competitiveness. It passed both the state Senate and House with unanimous bipartisan support.
Rabhi said he voted for the bill because he agreed with the idea of limiting FOIA requests to ensure the bidding process for state contracts is fair.
“When a company is bidding for providing services to the state, there was concern that a competitor company could FOIA that bid and then undercut that bid,” Rabhi said. “In a sealed bid environment, every company submits their bid not knowing what the other company has done.”
Zalamea said he fully supports the passage of the bill and agrees with the idea of protecting businesses from certain aspects of FOIA to promote competition.
“The government can and has directly impeded companies’ competitiveness when they release sensitive trade secrets,” Zalamea said. “Such information should only be released after the trades have been made.”
Conversely, Public Policy junior Rowan Conybeare, chair of the University’s chapter of the College Democrates, said in an email interview that she opposes FIOA restrictions in general.
"Transparency and accountability in government are essential to our democracy,” Conybeare wrote. “Legislative attempts to limit the scope of the FOIA are impediments to civic life and citizen participation.”