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Monday, March 11,2013

Op-ed: ‘Open government is good government’

Michigan Coalition for Open Government helps launch Sunshine Week

by Meegan Holland
Meegan Holland (courtesy photo)

Monday, March 11 — In 2007, the hazing of athletes on the Coopersville High School’s junior varsity baseball team led to student expulsions, criminal charges and a coach’s resignation. Victims’ families sued the school district and received cash settlements, which the district refused to disclose. The Grand Rapids Press sued on the basis that information was being kept secret illegally, and a judge agreed. 


Wouldn’t you like to know how your school district is spending your tax dollars?


Last June, Bridge Magazine asked the Department of Human Services for the number of welfare recipients who reapplied for cash assistance after a new law kicked them off the rolls. The DHS said the records didn’t exist, but Bridge discovered them through other means.


Assuming that the DHS officials are competent, wouldn’t you like to trust that they’d tell the truth?


Watchdogs come in all forms — they can be heroic citizens like environmental activist Erin Brockovich or non-traditional media like Bridge, a digital magazine funded by the Center for Michigan. But typically, the watchdog role falls to mainstream media.


Why? Because it takes money and time to crack open records that often should simply be handed over upon request. Read Grand Rapids Press Editor Paul Keep’s timeline to uncover Coopersville’s attempt to hide information of vital interests to its taxpayers. It was a protracted and expensive legal fight. A smaller news organization would have understandably cowered at the thought of mounting legal fees, particularly under the pressures of declining revenues that traditional media now face. And there aren’t many lawyers who are willing to take on such cases pro bono.


So it’s no surprise that a survey of media lawyers by the National Freedom of Information Coalition reports a 60 percent drop in open government lawsuits by media organizations in the past five years.


Which is where a new group, the Michigan Coalition for Open Government, enters the picture.


Its mission: “To promote and protect transparency and accountability in the governments of the people, by the people and for the people at the local, state and federal levels.”


Michigan was one of only two states that didn’t have a branch of the above-mentioned NFOIC, which has at its disposal $2 million to fund worthy open access lawsuits. MiCOG serves as a mechanism to vet violations of the state’s FOIA and Open Meetings Act brought to light by citizens and media. If the coalition gives the green light, those requests are nominated for funding to pursue legal action.


You can help support the cause and join the coalition by paying a nominal membership fee.


We’re announcing this during Sunshine Week, for which the motto is “Open government is good government.”


Michigan needs more open government. The state received a failing grade from The Center for Public Integrity — 44th out of 50 states, to be exact. We were graded on such qualities as public access to information (D), ethics enforcement agencies (F); judicial, executive and legislative accountability (all F) and political financing/lobbying disclosure (both F).


What we’ve found at Mlive as we continue our watchdog role is that some bureaucrats are extremely helpful. Then there are unempowered public information officers who can’t offer substantive responses to requests for the most basic information.


Federal, state and local governmental agencies have many good people who believe their employers should be transparent.


But not enough of them. So here is MiCOG, at your service.


Meegan Holland is Statewide News Editor for MLive Media Group and a MiCOG board member. You can email her at mholland@mlive.com, subscribe to her Facebook updates, or follow her on Twitter: @meholland.

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