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AG willing to take on FOIA fights

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks about government transparency Tuesday at the Alpena County George N. Fletcher Public Library.

ALPENA — Attorney General Dana Nessel said she is willing to take on cases related to the Michigan Freedom of Information or Open Meetings acts.

Nessel spoke before a crowd of more than 100 Northeast Michigan government officials and residents on Tuesday at the Alpena County Library as part of a government transparency program hosted by The News and the Michigan Press Association. FOIA mandates governments to hand over most documents to the public, while the Open Meetings Act spells out requirements for government board meetings.

It would be rare for an attorney general to intervene in a FOIA case on behalf of a resident who’d requested government documents.

Nessel, however, said public bodies should be held accountable when they are intentionally uncooperative and violate the law.

As an example, she said it’s a misdemeanor for a public official to intentionally violate the Open Meetings Act, and they can be fined $500 per meeting where a violation occurred. FOIA cases are civil and government bodies can be charged court costs and attorney fees if a judge rules they improperly denied a document request.

Nessel asked why people would be motivated to follow the law if no one is there to enforce it.

“What I will say to you all publicly today, if you have those cases, if you have those instances where you see flagrant violations of these statutes, you should absolutely bring them to the attention of my office, because we take this very seriously, and there’s a reason why I’m out here going county to county to county all over the state,” she said.

Nessel was invited by The News, in conjunction with the MPA, to speak to government officials and members of the public about transparency in government and what kind of information the public has the right to request from its government.

More than 100 people — representing local governments, law enforcement agencies, newspapers, and the general public — attended the event and came prepared to ask questions and take notes.

Nessel said FOIA and the Open Meetings Act are two of the most important tools the state has to make certain the media and the public know what the government is doing.

Nessel said anyone with a physical address is eligible to file a FOIA request with a government agency and that the agency has five business days to either complete the request, grant the request in part and deny the request in part, deny the request in full, or request a 10-day extension.

Members of the public whose request has been denied can appeal their request to the head of the agency, such as the head of a department or a mayor, or they have 180 calendar days to sue in circuit court.

There were also many questions from the public about the Open Meetings Act, such as when and how a board can go into closed session.

Tom Quasarano, an assistant attorney general who has worked on government transparency in the AG’s office for decades, said a board cannot start a meeting in closed session, and must make a motion to go into closed session. Any votes pertaining to what was discussed behind closed doors must be done in open session.

Nessel said she was “ashamed and embarrassed” Michigan is one of two states that exempt the governor, lieutenant governor, and both chambers of the Legislature from the requirements of the FOIA. The other state is Louisiana.

Additionally, she said Michigan is one of eight states to receive a failing grade from the Center for Public Integrity.

“When our government keeps its residents from knowing what happens behind closed doors, that’s when democracy dies — democracy dies in darkness,” she said, referencing the phrase that appeared under the Washington Post’s masthead in 2017. “It’s true, and I think we see that happening right now, both in our state government and also in our federal government.”

Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.