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Calley calls for sweeping transparency reform

January 31, 2017

Courtesy of MIRS News Service

(GRAND RAPIDS) — Lt. Gov. Brian Calley signaled Friday that he wants to move on an ethics-related package that would include public officials disclosing potential conflicts of interest in government and more access to public information.

Speaking to a room that included at least a couple dozen lawmakers, Calley told the Michigan Press Association (MPA) he wasn’t specific on what he’d like to see, but he envisions working with a bi-cameral, bi-partisan team of lawmakers interested in creating a “unified transparency package.” 

This may include roping the Governor’s office and the Legislature into the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) and requiring financial disclosure for public officials. 

“We released a lot of emails over the course of the last year and the sun kept coming up,” said Calley, referencing the data dumps stemming from the Flint water crisis. “Having a change that subjects legislative and executive offices to FOIA is appropriate.” 

Calley said details on such issues as constituent contacts must be worked out, but he’s committed to leading the effort to move something through both chambers in the name of giving residents more confidence in their government. 

“We’re no longer in perpetual fiscal crisis,” he said. “We’re at a point where we can spend more time on other issues that would enhance the results of the legislative process and of the governing process, in general.” 

The Center for Public Integrity in November 2015 ranked Michigan 50th out of 50 in accountability and public transparency, but Calley said his goal is not to move Michigan up a list. His goal is to instill more confidence in state government and encourage more citizen participation. 

The Lieutenant Governor was filling in for Gov. Rick Snyder at Friday’s MPA annual conference, with the Governor in Israel for a previously scheduled trade mission. 

The time wasn’t right last session in the Senate for FOIA-expansion legislation, Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) said earlier in the day at a MPA breakout panel. 

And while Meekhof didn’t unilaterally dismiss FOIA reform as an issue for the 99th Legislature, he did reiterate two things that won’t pass the Senate as long as he’s leader: Internal constituent communications and emailed negotiations among legislative leaders. 

“The communications between me and my constituents, as long as I’m leader, you’ll never get. That is privileged information,” Meekhof said. 

The House passed, 100-6, last session legislation that would subject legislative offices and the Governor’s office to open record laws. 

Meekhof stopped the eight-bill package from going much further out of concerns that an expansive law would subject his constituents to being a “target of state departments.” Also, if internal emails of discussion items were released, lawmakers and staff would stop using email to communicate, making the free flowing, deliberative process slower and more cumbersome. 

“It’s like if I were the Patriots in the Super Bowl and I gave out all of the plays before we got onto the field,” he said. “I don’t think that’s proper.” 

In his opinion, the only people interested in legislative emails are news reporters fishing for stories and political opponents seeking to embarrass the political figure in question. 

The Michigan Legislature releases all financial information as part of its House and Senate rules — contracts, salaries and budgets, for example. It also makes information on all of its committee meetings readily available on line. 

However, if the House moves FOIA reform this session, “We’ll take a good look at it,” Meekhof said. 

So will the House move something again this year? 

House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) declined to commit one way or the other since his caucus still has not put together their priorities for 2017-18. However, “Based on the discussions I’ve had, I would say that there is a good chance you will see that package of bills coming up in the future.” 

The two Democratic legislators at today’s MPA session — House Minority Leader Sam Singh (D-East Lansing) and Sen. Steve Bieda (D-Warren) — were both supportive of expanding FOIA. Singh said he was used to keeping and storing emails as part of the FOIA law as East Lansing’s former mayor and would have been fine with following similar procedures as a legislator. 

Singh said the bills pushed by former Rep. Ed McBroom and Rep. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) last session included protections on constituent relations. He expressed hope that the talk on this subject would continue, seeing Michigan is one of only two states that does not offer this level of sunshine. 

“Michigan should be ready for this,” Singh said.

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