By Jane Briggs-Bunting
Michigan Coalition for Open Government
Welcome to Sunshine Week, and no, I am not talking about the fickle weather in the state. I am talking about the public’s right and responsibility to keep an eye on what our government at the local, state and federal level are up to from our legislators to our bureaucrats, school boards, state universities, teachers, mayors, managers, department heads, council members, cops and others.
Sunshine Week, a national initiative to encourage discussion on the importance of open government and freedom of information, is celebrated annually in mid-March to coincide with James Madison’s March 16 birthday.
Sunshine Week is also the official launch of the Michigan Coalition for Open Government (MiCOG). Michigan was one of just two states (the other is Alaska) without an open government group.
MiCOG’s purpose is three-fold:
- to promote and protect transparency and accountability in state and local governments;
- to recommend significant freedom of information, open meetings and public access legal cases to the National Freedom of Information Coalition (NFOIC) for financial support,
- and to create educational programs and information.
And MiCOG invites you to join its efforts.
Why? Citizens and journalists are having greater difficulty obtaining public documents from government agencies. They are deterred by long delays in responses and high fees. Most individuals and smaller news organizations do not have the resources to mount legal challenges in FOIA and OMA cases.
But MiCOG can help with that. MiCOG makes citizens and news media in our state eligible to access some of the $2 million the Knight Foundation gave to NFOIC to fund worthwhile open access litigation. If the plaintiff prevails and recovers attorney fees and court costs (as required under Michigan’s FOI and OMA), that money goes back to the national group for future lawsuits around the nation. The NFOIC relies on state open government groups to recommend cases that could tap into the Knight funds. The national committee decides whether to back a case financially. One key role of MiCOG’s board is to make certain that only cases with good sets of facts go to court to make good law.
This type of support is necessary now more than ever. A 2010 survey by the NFOIC and the Knight Foundation concluded that the economic crisis plus declining revenues for print and broadcast media resulted in a sharp decline in FOI requests and litigation nationwide. In the past five years, the number of open government lawsuits filed by the news media in 23 states fell “dramatically.” Another eight states also reported declines. Nearly 80 percent of state FOI coalitions reported drops. Ominously, 85 percent said they expected FOI litigation to drop in the next three years.
Neither Michigan nor Alaska participated since both lacked open government groups, a deficiency MiCOG corrects.
Effective use of the FOIA is critical to keep tabs on public officials around the state.
The situation is critical for Michigan where ethics and anti-corruption laws barely exist. In 2012 Michigan earned a failing grade, ranking 44th of 50 states (www.stateintegrity.org/michigan) in a State Integrity Investigation (www.stateintegrity.org) jointly done by the Center for Public Integrity, Global Integrity and Public Radio International. Michigan had a dismal showing for key transparency checkpoints: public access to information (D), ethics enforcement agencies (F); judicial, executive and legislative accountability (all F) and political financing/lobbying disclosure (both F).
Local governments from schools and universities to municipalities and police are usually just as non-responsive, as well.
If you want to help, please visit the MiCOG website at www.miopengov.org and join the effort to keep the governments of the people, by the people and for the people transparent and accountable to all of us.