Me, definitely out of the office.

Happy Sunshine Week March 12-18, 2017

Out of the Basement Office (column)
Ryan Lewis, Editor

UPDATED: (Editor’s note: Normally, you have to pick up a paper copy of our paper to read my column. I’m going for a bit of a signal boost this week, however. So, here’s my Sunshine Week column. Read to the end, because there’s two great updates!)

It’s Sunshine Week—journalism’s annual reminder of just how important it is that the public push back against government secrecy.

I decided to let our local legislators do most of the talking this week, as there is a package of bills in the state House of Representatives that expands the state’s Freedom of Information Act into the legislative and executive branches of government. At least a little bit.

I also didn’t pass up an opportunity to ask them if they supported keeping public notices in local newspapers as a time-honored way to hold local government accountable.

First, the new guy: Rep. Steven Johnson. It was great to speak with him even though it turns out he thinks most people don’t read newspapers.

First things first, though; he generally supports the FOIA expansion, at least in principle.

“I haven’t had the chance to read the package of bills fully, but I definitely support opening up the legislature and executive office to FOIA,” he said. “I think it’s the right thing to do.”

(True to his word, he voted for it! See below—Ed.)

When it comes to public notices, he and I disagree at least in part. His main focus is on giving local municipalities the control to decide how best to share the information in their notices.

That sounds noble, but, ah, the whole point of public notices is to not put them in the driver’s seat. Having a third party to hold the government to account is whole idea. I look at the expense as being just another of costs governments pay to stay in operation.

Anyway, I couldn’t convince Johnson of that. Even when he insisted most people got their info online and I reminded him papers voluntarily post every public notice online at no additional charge, he still didn’t budge. At least he was polite.

Rep. Mary Whiteford has consistently voiced her support for public notices in newspapers.

There’s some nuance in the response I got last week: “I support using as many options available for distributing public notices, whether it’s on an internet website, a public posting outside a clerk’s office, on social media, and the newspaper. Using all those platforms help inform and update Allegan County residents as best as possible. It’s a part of government transparency that we should all expect.”

Hey, at least we’re in the mix. Frankly, I support all of those things, too.

As for expanding FOIA: “It remains a top priority of mine to hold the legislature and the executive branch of state government accountable to taxpayers. The residents of Allegan County deserve to know how their tax dollars are being spent.

“The FOIA/LORA package is a step in the right direction to make government more accountable and transparent to taxpayers.” (True to her word, she voted in favor of the bills; see below)

On to our state senator Tonya Schuitmaker and FOIA.

Derek Sova, her chief of staff said, “Sen. Schuitmaker continues to support expanding the provisions of FOIA to the legislature and governor’s office.  Citizens deserve to know what their government is doing and FOIA provides an avenue to obtain important records of government activities.”

And again, I’ve known Schuitmaker has supported keeping notices in papers for years.

Sova said, “She supports keeping public notices in print. For many residents, print newspapers continue to be the primary trusted source of local news. Keeping notices in print ensures the public receives these essential communications.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself. Happy Sunshine Week!


UPDATE: The best kind of update. Rep. Johnson emailed me today (Thursday, March 16) to say he’d voted in favor of passing the FOIA package.

A press release from his office said:

Today, State Rep. Steve Johnson joined a bipartisan majority in the House, approving landmark transparency bills that make state government more accountable to the people it serves.

This legislation makes the governor and lieutenant governor subject to the Freedom of Information Act and creates a similar disclosure requirement for state representatives and senators called the Legislative Open Records Act.

“I believe we should be fully accountable to the people we serve,” said Johnson, R-Wayland. “These bills give Michigan citizens access to information regarding how we use their tax dollars. This is common-sense legislation that puts the state under the same open records provisions that local governments are subject to.”

Rep. Johnson noted that Michigan is one of a few states that do not subject their legislative and executive branches to FOIA. In another move to increase transparency, the House recently added a salary database of all House employees on its website to provide more accountability to taxpayers.


Update #2: Rep. Whiteford later on Thursday announced she voted in favor of the bills in this March 16 press release:

State Rep. Mary Whiteford joined the House of Representatives today in upholding the bipartisan commitment to make government more accountable and accessible to the residents of Allegan County and Michigan.

Whiteford, of Casco Township, voted on an 11-bill government transparency package to make the governor and lieutenant governor subject to the Freedom of Information Act and creates a similar disclosure requirement for state representatives and senators called the Legislative Open Records Act.

“I have a responsibly to the residents of Allegan County to ensure that our state government information is accessible and transparent,” Whiteford said. “This legislation is a significant step in the right direction, ensuring people have more of an insight and voice in state government.”

I will try to update this as I find out more. The package of bills is not exactly wide open access, but it’s something. Also, it’s important to note a similar package of bills made it this far last year too before dying in the state Senate. It continues to not have much support from the Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof—who ultimately decides which bills make it to the Senate floor for a vote.


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