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What journalists and Tea Partiers have in common

There’s something, believe it or not, that Tea Party conservatives and liberals have in common. They believe that  government at all levels needs oversight, and people need to be able to easily find out what their governments are doing.

And in one of politics’ great ironies, two of the most conservative state representatives have introduced bills that everyone, but especially groups like journalists and the ACLU should be doing everything they can to get behind and support.

State Representatives Tom McMillin, of Rochester, and Mike Shirkey, of Clark Lake in Jackson County, have each sponsored bills that would go a long way to make the Michigan Freedom of Information Act work better for all of us citizens.

Back in the 1970s, in the wake of government secrecy scandals over Vietnam and Watergate, most states, including Michigan, passed Freedom of Information Acts, usually known by their abbreviation as FOIAs.

The logic was simple. Government records by and large are, and should be, almost completely public records. After all, government is funded with our tax dollars, and the way government does business in a democracy should be open to we the people.

Under Michigan’s FOIA, citizens have the right to request any government record, and the government involved has to comply within five business days, ask for more time, or explain why a request is being denied. Legally, the only things that aren’t supposed to be public are some kinds of personnel information, like medical records, or information of the highest national security. Governments are allowed to charge a “reasonable fee” for, say, photocopying the records and the time of an employee spent doing so.

For years, this worked pretty well. But those running governments sooner or later often decide that they don’t much like sharing what they do with the public. And they don’t like spending time complying with those annoying FOIA requests from journalists and the public. So many governments have begun to stall such requests or charge exorbitant fees.

One Detroit suburb wanted one of my students to pay more than fifty dollare before even considering her request for some innocuous information about its parks and recreation department.

Last winter, McMillin and Shirkey jointly introduced bills to do something about this. Shirkey’s bill, HB 4001, would set strict limits of ten cents a page on what government could charge for reproducing public records, and fine governments that dragged their feet.

McMillin’s bill, HB 4314, would create an Open Government Commission that would investigate citizen complaints about governmental non-compliance with the act, and have the power to issue an opinion that is binding and enforceable.

These two bills would go a long way to make democracy work better. Yesterday, I talked to Representative McMillin about them. Both are before the House Oversight Committee, which he chairs, and he is hoping to get his committee to approve and move them to the full house soon.

This is something that would potentially benefit every citizen, and make it easier for journalists to perform their watchdog function. McMillin and Shirkey deserve praise for sponsoring these bills, which ought to get much more notice -- and support -- soon.