Democracy Tree: Michigan has a big transparency problem


by Amy Kerr Hardin

As we wrap up National Sunshine Week, that annual event where elected officials give lip service to the concept of governmental transparency, Michigan leaders can hardly claim to be walking on sunshine. However, they are taking some tentative steps in the right direction.
On July 1, of this year, Public Act 563 of 2014 goes into full effect, making Freedom of Information Act requests easier, cheaper and faster in Michigan. The new law requires public bodies to provide specific written guidelines explaining the FOIA process, an accounting of itemized costs, and the means for appeal of a denied request. Additionally, limits on allowable fees will prohibit some of the currently exorbitant charges imposed, often for the sole purpose of discouraging requests. The public body must furnish the records electronically if requested, putting an end to the expensive document dumps of the past. Increased punitive damages and fines will encourage compliance.
The law is a step forward, but Stephen Henderson, Editor at the Detroit Free Press would like to see more improvement, particularly in the area of fees.
It’s reasonable to ask why there are fees at all for retrieving information; governments collect taxes, in part, to fund their compliance with open records laws. No one should have to hire and pay for a lawyer to shake loose information that belongs to them in the first place.
Campaign Finance Sunshine?
Michigan currently has some legislation pending to address campaign finance transparency. If passed, House Bill 4184 will shed a little light on third-party “dark money” spending in candidate-related and ballot proposal ads, also known as “electioneering communications.” The identity of individuals sponsoring and paying for these ads would be required to be disclosed, in a timely manner, so as to inform the electorate of who may be attempting to sway their vote. The bill is being considered in the House Committee on Elections.
Seven other states join Michigan in weighing “dark money” disclosure legislation in 2015. In all, 17 proposals are pending, with the vast majority sponsored by Democrats. It’s no wonder though, Republicans outpace Democrats by a wide margin in the third-party money game.
It’s worth noting that multitudes of legislation on campaign finance reform are currently being considered in state legislatures across the nation — unfortunately though, little of it showing promise of easing the trend set in motion by the 2009 Citizens United ruling.
Dark Money in High Places
Wisconsin is at the nexus of the battle against the dark forces, and they appear to be losing their struggle for transparency. Their Supreme Court is poised to hear a case that will decide if candidates may openly coordinate/solicit with third-parties, tossing out a state prohibition on direct communication. The Beloit Daily News offered this blunt assessment:
“[F]our members of the court benefited to the tune of several million dollars in direct campaign support from groups now asking the justices to dismiss the investigation against them. It’s a conflict of interest of astonishing proportions. If those justices stay on the case and decide it, let’s call it what it is — corruption.
Now the organizations trying to kill the John Doe investigation are asking the Supreme Court to conduct its hearing and business in secrecy, locking out the press and public. Corruption is easier to practice when no one is allowed to watch.”
Michigan’s Supreme Court has the potential for even greater corruption. Known as the poster child of dark money, millions are poured into electing the state’s high court officials, with precious little of it open to public disclosure. Rich Robinson of the non-partisan watchdog group, Michigan Campaign Finance Network, describes the problem:
“The problem with this unreported, unregulated advertising is that it can conceal the identity of a major campaign finance supporter who appears as a litigant before the justices on the Court. If such a supporter is involved in a case before the justices, his or her opponent in litigation is justified in asking the beneficiary of the support to recuse himself from the case… Without transparency the presumption of impartial justice is compromised.”
Passage of HB-4184 could demonstrate a long-overdue legislative commitment to campaign transparency. Democracy Tree advises readers not to hold their breath.

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