A news service for the people of Michigan from the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act law, like many across the nation, arose in the years following the Watergate scandal in Washington. Since then, almost every president, governor and public official has spoken about the need for transparency, and media outlets and citizens have used the law as an important tool in fighting government secrecy.

But some local union-backed contracts work to hinder FOIA and public openness in Michigan, as sometimes unions and local public entities don’t like taxpayers being able to see how their money is spent. This is a disservice to Michigan news outlets and citizens.

We have seen across the state how local collective bargaining agents have tried to limit the FOIA law.

For example, the local union in Grandville Public Schools in Kent County bargained into its contract a provision that allows employees and the union to "exclude from release all materials that are untimely, inappropriate, or are excluded under state and federal laws."

Wyoming Public Schools, also in Kent County, has nearly identical language: All employees and the union can see the information request and “exclude from the FOIA request response all materials not timely or inappropriate.” The contract also forces the school board and administration to “take the full legal timeline as permitted under the law to comply with the FOIA request.” In Mattawan Consolidated Schools in Van Buren County, the union has also bargained to force the district to wait the maximum time to respond to FOIA requests.

West Michigan districts aren’t alone. In Oakland County, the School District of the City of Royal Oak has in its contract that “the employer shall take the maximum time allowable” to respond to the request so that “the employee and/or Association [has] the opportunity to take whatever legal option is available to bar disclosure of any or all of the requested document(s).”

Some of those provisions are against state law — the Freedom of Information Act does not allow public entities to avoid transparency because material is “untimely” or “inappropriate.” Others are against the intent, if not the letter of the transparency act.

And if the constitutional amendment Proposal 2 had passed, local contracts would have been able to trump state laws and it is likely this would have become the model for unions to follow. By stating that material is of a personal nature or subject to review before release, transparency is cast aside.

Various other units of government have worked to thwart requests for information that may be useful to the public. Heritage News was recently denied a FOIA request by the state for a list of principals deemed “ineffective” on the grounds that the request was for information “of a personal nature.”

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy and Michigan Capitol Confidential have clashed with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. over fiscal reports, two public universities that attempted to hide even mundane information, and the Michigan State Police, which charged $7 million for federal homeland security grant money.

Transparency laws are important. In just the few years we have used FOIA requests to break dozens of major news stories.

  • Exposing the SEIU “dues skim,” where the union teamed up with the administration of former Gov. Jennifer Granholm to take more than $32 million from home-based caregivers — most of whom are taking care of their friends and relatives.
  • The multi-million dollar forced unionization of up to 60,000 day care providers who were put into a union for accepting state money to look after children.
  • The film credit scandal involving the owners of “Hangar 42,” who attempted to lie to state officials about the price of a studio to garner taxpayer money leading to a felony charge.
  • Taxpayers paying millions for school union heads who are paid by districts but do not teach any classes or contribute toward the education of students.
  • The Michigan public school system that fires less than 0.001 percent of all tenured teachers, including those who committed criminal acts.
  • Some teachers caught kissing and assaulting students and using drugs that were bought out with severance packages because they could not be immediately removed.
  • 31 gym teachers in Utica who earn more than the town police chief.
  • An illegal teacher union strike being pushed by the state’s largest school employee union.

Almost all of the egregious examples above were made possible by government unions bargaining bad conditions into their contracts with the help of local officials. Obviously, some unions have a lot to gain if they are able to put into their contract a provision that limits or dissolves transparency requirements.

Going forward, the Legislature should work to strengthen and enhance transparency laws. They should also remember one important lesson: Government employee unions exist for the purpose of their members; not children, and certainly not taxpayers.

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