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The fight for transparency: 7 Investigators explore Michigan's public records rules

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Posted at 7:55 AM, Jan 27, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-28 16:38:54-05

(WXYZ) — Our goal is to always be transparent about how we gather news and how we verify information.

As part of our effort to increase news literacy, we’re taking you inside the law in Michigan that enables our reporters to get the truth from the government.

Related: Here's what a FOIA request is and how you can file one in Michigan

The Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, is the law that allows anyone to ask a government body for public records.

Without it, some of the most important stories in recent memory would not have been told.

FOIA was critical in our investigation that exposed an unsafe landing system at Detroit Metro Airport, allowing you to hear radar playback recordings from pilots upset about the use of the Instrument Landing System Offset Localizer at Metro Airport.

In our year-long investigation of Detroit’s 911 system, FOIA helped revealed thousands of calls that languished for hours: callers that were put on hold and lives put at risk.

FOIA was used to help free people accused of crimes they say they did not commit.

And it revealed how the state ignored suspicious psychiatric patient deaths for years, leading to a change in Michigan law.

“When you start asking questions, when you look for emails and you follow the paper trail, you’ll find an amazing breadth of information underneath what people usually think is the cover of darkness,” said Jennifer A. Dukarski, Deputy General Counsel of the Michigan Press Association and First Amendment attorney with Butzel Long.

Dukarski says the Freedom of Information Act is one of the most important tools journalists and citizens to have hold the powerful accountable.

“We need to understand how our taxpayer dollars are being sent, how decisions are being made, so we can restore the faith and confidence in our government and our relationship with the government,” said Dukarski.

But FOIA isn’t foolproof.

After a 2019 FOIA request from the 7 Investigators to the Oakland County Commission, former Commissioner Shelley Taub texted her coworkers, telling them to delete their emails because of our request for records about the replacement of the late County Executive L. Brooks Patterson.

FOIA also has a lot of limitations about what you can and can’t get from the government, and government agencies have a lot of ways of preventing us from accessing the information we need to help you understand the whole story.

Since 2015, Senator Jeremy Moss, a Democrat from Southfield, has fought to make it easier for citizens to access public information.

“The more hurdles we set up in government, the more questions citizens have of what else is the government hiding,” said Sen. Moss.

In Michigan, governments can take up to 15 business days to fulfill a request, even a simple one.

Earlier this month, we asked Wayne County for any harassment complaints against Raphael Washington who was seeking to be appointed County Sheriff. We knew Washington was the subject of lawsuits, but wanted more details. Rather than turn over the records, the county took a 15-day extension, ensuring we wouldn’t see any complaints until after he got the job.

“You pay for this government, and you should have every right to understand those everyday issues that impact you,” Moss said.

Even though it’s called the Freedom of Information Act, the information is seldom free. Governments charge sometimes hundreds or thousands of dollars to fulfill requests, often making it financially impossible for reporters and citizens to get the information.

“It logically leads to questions of what do you have to hide,” said Sen. Moss.

And most surprising of all, Michigan is one of just two states that allow the State House, Senate and Governor to be exempt from FOIA.

“Forty eight other states subject both their governor and state legislature to open records requests and we do not,” said Sen. Moss.

In 2019, the Center for Public Integrity rated Michigan dead last for transparency in government.

“When Gretchen Whitmer was running for office, she had promised FOIA reforms. To some degree she’s made some strides in that, but we still don’t have legislation, we still don’t have full transparency in either the Governor’s office or within the legislature. And these are just things that put us really truly subpar to other states,” said Dukarski.

Sen. Moss has introduced bills three different times that would make Michigan’s elected leaders subject to FOIA, and three times the bills have died. But he’s not giving up. This year, along with Republican Sen. Ed McBroom, he hopes the fourth time is the charm.

“We need to lift up this veil of secrecy on how government operates, because at the end of the day, we’re not accountable to each other. We’re accountable to the residents that pay for this government,” said Sen. Moss.