Ain't No Sunshine
By Amy Kerr Hardin | April 28, 2018
“Sunshine Week” came and went with little fanfare earlier this year, garnering all the predictable editorials calling for more transparency in government, a concept captured by the maxim “sunshine is the best disinfectant.”
Transparency. It's a simple premise. The laws governing it are fairly straightforward too. Yet, some local leaders remain utterly baffled by the concept. They repeatedly violate these easy-to-comprehend statutes, only to earn a wrist slap, along with a few hours of punitive training, all while poised to do it all over again. Rinse and repeat.
It's troubling how frequently we learn about yet another local unit of government or school board operating on the wrong side of Michigan's laws regarding freedom of information and public meetings. They're either improperly entering into closed-session meetings to discuss and deliberate issues away from the public eye, or they might "accidentally" form a quorum over drinks and "inadvertently" discuss the public's business at some watering hole. All very innocent, we are assured. And of course, there's the classic pre-voting on motions via group email or casual conversations prior to a public meeting. Sure, taking a nose count before a vote is perfectly legal elsewhere, including the United States Congress. But not so among Michigan's smaller governing bodies. And with good reason — they are the only arena with which we, mere commoners, can approach direct democracy. The town hall is a sacred space, and is rightfully protected by state law.
Kalkaska village president Jeff Sieting, locally infamous for his knives-out approach to doing the public’s business, openly thumbs his nose at transparency. Not known for his personal forbearance or a basic sense of decorum in the realm of social media, he recently proposed that the governing body there should be restricted from releasing information to the public without first being served an official Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request — a process that even under the new and marginally improved state rules still remains costly and cumbersome to the inquiring party. The phony reasoning behind Sieting’s notion would be to allow a review by village attorneys to determine whether Kalkaska would be harmed by release of the information. The village president’s feigned concern over the community’s reputation is belied by his personally offensive behavior that tarnished Kalkaska in media reports from coast to coast. The public embarrassment compelled a citizen’s group to make him the subject of a May 8 recall election.
A history of local and state leaders snubbing the law has led to an overall mood of distrust of government institutions, as evidenced by a recent legal complaint accusing the Grand Traverse County Board of skirting the Open Meetings Act, when its members actually did not violate the law. The county’s stubborn resistance to comply with FOIA requests from the same plaintiff cast a cloud over their decision to conduct a closed session meeting to discuss the lawsuit. Perceived improprieties based on reputation carry the same weight as an actual offense in the public eye, and they are hard to shake.
Things aren't so sunny around the state either. Michigan State University's leadership went to great lengths to keep the public in the dark about what is now recognized as arguably the worst sexual assault scandal of record. Ex-governor John Engler, interim president of MSU, didn’t help matters when he offered $250,000 in hush money to a victim. Fifty miles to the east, investigators in the Flint water crisis were stonewalled at every turn under the nearly impenetrable liability shield of the state's brutal emergency manager law. Both scandals can be counted among the darkest in Michigan's history.
Bill Schuette, Michigan's attorney general and 2018 gubernatorial hopeful, was tasked with both of those investigations, yet he's hardly pure as the driven snow on transparency. While shilling for transparency via campaign promises about reforming the state's FOIA process, he’s been simultaneously locked in a legal battle with the watchdog group Progress Michigan over FOIA requests it submitted against his office. Progress Michigan discovered through previous FOIAs that Schuette and his staff were doing government business through private emails. Schuette's been stalling through a string of baseless appeals. Lonnie Scott of Progress Michigan doesn't mince his words on the attorney general: “With a track record like his, I am shocked Schuette can even spell ethics and transparency. But hey, at least his initials are fitting because this, like most of his rhetoric, is total B.S.”
Michigan exports its penchant for murkiness to Washington, D.C. too. In his northern Michigan district, U.S. Representative Jack Bergman has raised opacity to an art form. The retired Marine regularly deploys his staff like human shields protecting him from engaging with his increasingly frustrated constituents. During the 2017 legislative session, Bergman lent his name to only three of the 21 bills introduced to foster congressional transparency and accountability. After months of dodging concerned citizens, he finally made an appearance at a Traverse City town hall last October. It was an event marked by obfuscation and condescension from the podium, where Bergman actually referred to the audience as “kids.” The event came to a close (a “time out,” the congressman called it) when the lawmaker’s delicate sensibilities were offended by a salty comment about the president’s carnal improprieties.
The public knows more about Trump’s horndog proclivities than his shady business dealings and potential conflicts of interest. A little more sunshine on his taxes, and less on his presidential junk, would be welcome.