Flint residents deserve much, beginning with truth

Published 11:04 pm Friday, March 11, 2016


Like so many who call Michigan home, I am horrified by what we’re witnessing take place in Flint. Every time I turn on the faucet in my own home I’m reminded of it. A series of unforgivable failures in government has put the health of an entire generation of Flint residents at risk and a city is left wondering why it took so long for anyone to hear their pleas for help.

There are questions that must be answered and those responsible must be held accountable. The situation demands nothing less. But while leaders inside Michigan’s Capitol must commit to the long-term efforts to repair the damage that has been done to Flint, they must also recognize the need to repair the shattered trust in state government for those who justly feel betrayed by it.

That process will be measured in years, if not lifetimes, but is one that can begin immediately by ending the secrecy that Michigan’s government has been allowed to operate.

Michigan is one of only two states that shields both the governor and the legislature from the Freedom of Information Act, denying the public access to emails, documents or other communications that would shed light on not only why decisions are made, but how officials were influenced to make them.

When state lawmakers first voted to exclude themselves from FOIA, they claimed it was to protect their constituents from having their private correspondences with Capitol offices made publicly available. That reasoning, however, does not explain why communications between state and local officials should ever need that same privacy or avoidance of public scrutiny, nor why lawmakers couldn’t simply exempt their constituents’ private information from FOIA rather than the entirety of their offices’ communications.

The result has left the public in the dark as onlookers from around the world struggle to understand how such serious warnings from the people of Flint went unanswered. As so many have tried to raise these important questions and uncover the truth behind what led to this avoidable crisis, the story too often is that we simply don’t know because Michigan law doesn’t require anyone to provide those answers.

This sanctioned secrecy inside Michigan’s Capitol has earned the state an “F” grade from the Center for Public Integrity, ranking it dead last among all of the states in transparency, accountability and ethics. While elected officials from both sides of the aisle have proposed fixing Michigan’s worst-in-the-nation transparency laws over the years, its leaders have stubbornly refused to make fixing it a priority.

Given the enormity of the crisis in Flint, it’s clearly time for that to change.

Legislation has already been introduced in Michigan’s Capitol that would end the exemption the Governor’s office and legislative offices currently have from the Freedom of Information Act, subjecting them to the same standards that the rest of government is rightly required to operate in. Lawmakers must now put passing it at the top of their agenda.

Providing badly needed transparency inside the highest offices of Michigan’s government would not only allow for a much more thorough review of the communications that that ultimately led to the disaster in Flint, but would ensure that future decisions are made by those working in a transparent system to begin with.

The people of Flint are owed the truth. They are owed an answer to how their government failed them so badly. And they are owed the promise that their state won’t allow the same mistakes to happen again. Lifting the veil of secrecy that currently lies over Michigan’s Capitol would be a tremendous first step in that direction.

Gretchen Whitmer is a former Michigan Senate Democratic Leader and currently is a lecturer at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan. Her column appears here today as part of a series for Sunshine Week, which promotes open government.