New Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has issued a directive aimed at making it easier to obtain public documents from state departments, but she stopped short of taking the same action for the governor's office, one of just two nationwide wholly exempt from open-records laws.
The Democratic governor said Friday she "absolutely" considered using her power to open the governor's office to record requests but decided it would be better for the Legislature to send her bills to sign. Lawmakers also are not covered by the state's 43-year-old Freedom of Information Act.
Massachusetts is the only other state to wholly exempt the governor's office, and Michigan is among eight states where the Legislature is explicitly exempt. Those exemptions were factors in Michigan receiving an "F'' grade on transparency and accountability in 2015 as part of a 50-state analysis done by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
Whitmer told reporters, editors and legislators gathered for the Michigan Press Association's annual luncheon in Grand Rapids that she preferred a statute for two reasons: longevity and leverage.
"I want to make sure that the Legislature is subject to the same level of accountability," she said. "That's really important. The sun should shine as brightly on both branches."
The Michigan Republican Party accused Whitmer of "breaking a major campaign promise" by not voluntarily opening her office to record requests. In the campaign, she pledged to do so "if the Legislature won't act" – prompting GOP spokesman Tony Zammit to call her campaign "nothing more than rhetoric." Lawmakers have not yet started voting on legislation in the new two-year session, however.
At the event, Whitmer signed a directive that she said will close loopholes that state officials have used to slow down the FOIA process. It orders the directors of departments and agencies to designate a "transparency liaison" to facilitate record requests and to advocate for disclosure quickly and in a cost-efficient way. Agencies sometimes tell media outlets it will cost thousands of dollars to provide documents.
The use of extensions to respond to requests "are going to be the exception and not the general rule in state government," she said. Officials in her administration will be prohibited from using electronic communication methods like text messages to communicate during public meetings. The state also will create an online system where public notices and records can be uploaded and searched.
In the wake of Flint's water crisis, the Republican-led House in 2016 and 2017 overwhelmingly passed bills to subject the governor's office and legislators to FOIA requests, but they went nowhere in the GOP-controlled Senate – which now has many new senators who supported the legislation when they were in the House.
Sen. Jeremy Moss, a Southfield Democrat and advocate for expanding the FOIA to the governor and Legislature, said the bills may finally gain enough traction this session.
"I think that we have leadership in place in both parties, in both chambers, to at long last push this forward," he said. "There's really no excuses. If 48 other states can figure out how to make transparency work, surely Michigan can, too."
Whitmer's directive is the latest dealing with government transparency. After taking office a month ago, she issued a directive to prohibit state employees from using personal email to conduct government business.