Whitmer signs directive to cut fees, wait times on FOIA requests

Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer speaks at a Democratic election-night party on November 6, 2018 in Detroit | Bill Pugliano, Getty Images

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants Michigan to lose its distinction as one of the least transparent states in the country.

On Friday, one month to the day after being sworn in as the state’s new governor, Whitmer signed an executive directive that she says helps to fulfill a campaign promise of bringing about more sunshine and builds upon earlier directives focused on transparency.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signs a transparency executive directive at the Michigan Press Association conference in Grand Rapids, Feb. 1, 2019 | Nick Manes

She did so at the Michigan Press Association’s annual luncheon in Grand Rapids.

The directive, her 11th as governor, will designate a “transparency liaison” within the state’s departments and agencies, as well as requiring the disclosure of public records in a more “timely” and “cost-efficient manner,” she said.

However, the measure doesn’t extend the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to her executive office or the Legislature. That’s been the subject of reform bills that has failed in past legislatures.

The goal of the directive, Whitmer said, is to “address some of the problems that plague” FOIA requests, like departments sometimes charging high fees for records and delaying the release of those records by seeking extensions.

“We will encourage all FOIA requests to be fulfilled on time and extensions are going to be the exception and not the general rule in state government,” Whitmer said to applause on Friday.

Dana Nessel

Whitmer’s executive directive Friday also quickly won praise from Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, who said that she will immediately designate someone from her office to serve as transparency liaison.

“Our residents should be able to count on their state government to be open, accessible, accountable and transparent,” Nessel said in a statement. “The people’s business should never be conducted behind closed doors and we should do everything in our power to respond quickly, efficiently and thoroughly to every Freedom of Information request we get.”  

Michigan’s opaque transparency laws have come under particular fire in the last few years as problems with Flint’s water and the proliferation of PFAS turned into crises. That’s spurred calls from good government advocates to reform open-records laws.

Those two events helped to inspire the governor’s first executive directive, which mandates that department-level state employees “who become aware of an imminent threat to public health, safety or welfare must immediately report it to their department director or agency head.”

Flint River July 2018 | Michael Barera, Wikimedia Commons

Whitmer also signed a directive barring state employees from conducting state business on personal email accounts, which are immune from public record requests.

Speaking before several state legislators, as well as business and editorial staff from myriad Michigan news outlets, Whitmer acknowledged that Friday’s directive stops short of opening either her office or the Legislature to public records requests.

Michigan is one of only two states in the country to exempt those governmental branches from FOIA, and in doing so has contributed to Michigan earning an “F” transparency grade from the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity.

Whitmer could in theory, issue an executive order opening her office up to FOIA requests, just as local governments and state agencies are required to do. However, she said she prefers a legislative fix because it would ensure that both the executive and legislative branches are held to the same standards, as well as ensuring that the law outlasts her governorship.

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

The Legislature’s appetite for opening itself up to FOIA, however, is somewhat unclear. Both state Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have expressed support for bringing about more transparency to their chambers. Chatfield last week told the Advance that the state should be “embarrassed” by the Center for Public Integrity ranking.

Both leaders, however, have expressed concerns about how opening the legislative and executive branches to all records requests could hamper government’s ability to operate.

When, or if, Whitmer and the legislative leaders strike a deal on opening their branches to FOIA is unclear, but the governor said that the measure on Friday helps move in that direction.

“Is there more we can do? Yes,” Whitmer said. “Is there more we will do? Yes. But I think, unilaterally, what I can do and what I did today is a step in the right direction.”

Nick Manes
Nick Manes covers West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels. His byline also has appeared in Route Fifty and The Daily Beast. When not reporting around the state or furiously tweeting, he enjoys spending time with his girlfriend, Krista, biking around his hometown of Grand Rapids and torturing himself rooting for the Detroit Lions.

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