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Gov’t transparency has a friend in Northeast Michigan

I had a column in the hopper this week about how much I appreciate journalists as a people, but I had to abandon it.

Because I have to write about how much I appreciate you, Northeast Michigan.

On Tuesday, The News, in partnership with the Michigan Press Association, hosted Attorney General Dana Nessel at the Alpena County Library for a seminar on the Michigan Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts. Richard Lamb, publisher of our friends at the Presque Isle Advance and current MPA president, was there.

We originally planned for 50 people, but asked the library to bump that up when those slots were nearly filled up by dozens of RSVPs from the area government officials we specifically invited. We knew we’d get more attendees who saw the house ads we’d been running and the preview story we wrote.

On Tuesday afternoon, 100 chairs were set up at the library before the event began, and library crews had to keep hauling more in.

When the event got underway around 1 p.m., the library’s large second-floor meeting room was overflowing with a good mix of government officials from across the region and the general public. Tim Kuehnlein, from Alpena Community College, brought his whole class that was in session at the time and offered extra credit to his other classes if they attended. Five regional newspapers were represented in the audience.

The turnout alone was enough to leave me impressed.

We asked the public to show up in the middle of a workday to hear an attorney talk about statutes dealing with bureaucratic documents and procedures. I expected perhaps a couple dozen people, but we broke the seams at the library. I was thrilled.

But you didn’t just show up, Northeast Michigan. You leaned in.

Nessel spoke and took questions for a full 90 minutes at the library, and the audience stayed engaged the entire time. I saw notes being taken, heads nodding in agreement. The crowd asked good, solid questions that told me Northeast Michiganders are interested in holding their government officials to account for providing the transparency they’re required to provide and that government officials are interested in doing things the right way.

That’s the kind of community in which I want to live.

The only sour note was when Nessel suggested the law could be amended to mandate live-streamed government meetings. A noble and worthy idea, but I could see some head-shaking among government officials who know their communities lack the internet infrastructure needed to do such a thing, let alone the know-how.

I would’ve been tickled pink just by the audience, but then Nessel made clear she’d like her office to intervene in a FOIA fight someday.

I’ve been involved in a lot of those fights over the years, and they’re never easy. The law demands government transparency, but there’s enough ambiguity in the statutes to leave a lot of government document requests open to interpretation. And the law’s biggest weakness is that it gives the very government agencies who want to withhold those documents the first crack at that interpretation.

The public can take those fights to court and has the chance to win back court costs and attorney fees, but, even for big-city newspapers with expensive corporate lawyers, those sorts of situations force serious cost-benefit analyses.

You might get your money back if you win, but are you willing and able to pay those costs if you lose? Are the records you’re after worth it? Even if you win in court, you have to pay for the processing of the records, and there’s always the chance you’ll pay big money for documents that end up so heavily redacted they don’t reveal anything, anyway.

In the four years I worked at the Lansing State Journal, we had those debates many, many times, and more than once decided the fight wasn’t worth it. And that was at an organization able to more than once crank out $1,000-plus checks for FOIA’d documents and with a very pricey Detroit lawyer at its disposal.

Imagine if you’re Mom or Pop Michigander making minimum and wage. Fighting that fight by yourself is darn near impossible.

But having your attorney general in your corner could make all the difference.

I imagine Nessel’s office would look for a case her attorneys think they have a good chance of winning and that could set precedent, establishing caselaw to clear up the ground rules for future FOIA fights.

I hope she finds such a case.

In short, Tuesday showed me government transparency has friends both in the Attorney General’s Office and in Northeast Michigan.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.