What if there was no news?

Were it not for freedom of information laws that guarantee public access to public records, there would likely be a great many blank newspaper pages like this one.

Nothing replaces a well-placed source, but journalists rely on statutes such as Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act to access documents that can reveal all kinds of truths government officials might not otherwise disclose. Just this month, The News used documents obtained through FOIA to discover that Hillman Community Schools had hired Heather Winfield as a substitute teacher even though Hillman officials were fully aware she’d been accused of an inappropriate relationship with a student in Alpena.

Without access to those documents, the public might never be aware of the apparent lapse in hiring protocols.

Such examples are why newspapers and other First Amendment advocates all across the country are now celebrating Sunshine Week, an annual event to fete FOIA laws and to call for further reforms to shine more light on the dark corners of our government.

Congress and legislatures around America passed public records laws after the Watergate scandal. The laws guarantee the public will have the chance to review most documents created with public resources, so taxpayers and voters can better understand the inner workings of their elected and appointed leaders and others paid with taxpayer money.

But the law has its limits, and is in need of reform. The Legislature has for years debated changes to the Michigan’s open records law, and we believe it is time to enact the following:

∫ Make FOIA less necessary. Technology available today makes it not only possible but relatively easy and cost-effective to make documents available online, and the Legislature should at least incentivize, if not require, local governments and school boards to automatically post online obviously public documents –things like contracts, check registers, policies, etc. –so the public can access them without the hassle of a formal FOIA request.

∫ Expand FOIA to cover the Legislature, governor’s office. Currently, the governor’s executive office and lawmakers are immune from FOIA. Gov. Rick Snyder voluntarily released a trove of emails related to the Flint water crisis that revealed missteps by several people in his administration, including some of his direct advisers. But there is nothing in Michigan’s law that would have forced him to make those records public, and he could have kept all of those secrets. That needs to change.

∫ Make the law tougher. There are certainly times when public disclosure of records does more harm than good. Releasing records in the midst of a police investigation, for example, can scare off witnesses or cause people to change their stories. But those situations should be the rare exception, not the norm. Current FOIA law exempts certain records from disclosure in certain situations, but the law also includes overly broad exemptions for things like “unwarranted invasion of privacy” that are open to interpretation. Public officials who want things hidden can abuse those exemptions to keep secrets they shouldn’t keep. The law should narrow the list of exemptions and leave it less open to interpretation.

Also, the Legislature should clarify when a police investigation is considered closed. Too often, law enforcement withholds investigatory records, citing an “ongoing investigation” on the chance that some new information might come to light, even after a court case is well underway. The Legislature should explicitly say how long law enforcement can hold on to records under the “ongoing investigation” exemption.

∫ Put on a clock. Currently, FOIA gives public officials a maximum 15 business days to tell someone seeking documents whether their request is approved and to provide an estimate of how much it will cost for the government to produce those records. After that, however, there is no firm limit on how long the government has to hand over the records. Michiganders often wait weeks, months, even years for documents to be produced. Sometimes, the government intentionally slow-foots release to serve its own purposes. The Legislature should end that by putting a clock on how long the government has to hand over documents that have already been paid for.

The current law says documents should be handed over in a “reasonable” amount of time, but the only recourse for Michiganders who feel they’ve waited unreasonably long is to sue the government in circuit court. Which brings us to our final point.

∫ Take the burden off the public. Under current law, Michiganders who feel they’ve been wronged in some way under FOIA –that they were inappropriately denied, were charged too much, or that documents are taking too long to produce –typically have one chance to appeal to the governing board of whatever government is handling the request. If the requester doesn’t like that decision, he or she must sue in circuit court. If the requester is ultimately successful in that suit, a judge can order the government to pay the requester’s legal fees on the case, but the wronged Michigander must have the money and know-how upfront to take the case to court in the first place. That is an undue burden. The public shouldn’t have to fight for access to public records. We would encourage Michigan to adopt a system similar to Illinois, where an independent third party in the state attorney general’s office considers FOIA appeals and issues opinions to settle disputes.

This Sunshine Week, we encourage the Legislature to take on these reforms and to illuminate the dark corners of the people’s government.