New Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a directive Friday aimed at making it easier to obtain public documents from state departments but stopped short of taking the same action for the governor's office, one of just two nationwide wholly exempt from open-records laws.
The Democratic governor said she "absolutely" considered using her power to open the governor's office to record requests but decided it would be better for the Legislature to send her bills to sign. Lawmakers also are not covered by the state's 43-year-old Freedom of Information Act.
Massachusetts is the only other state to wholly exempt the governor's office, and Michigan is among eight states where the Legislature is explicitly exempt. Those exemptions were factors in Michigan receiving an "F'' grade on transparency and accountability in 2015 as part of a 50-state analysis done by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit investigative journalism organization.
Whitmer told reporters, editors and legislators gathered for the Michigan Press Association's annual luncheon in Grand Rapids that she preferred a statute for two reasons: longevity and leverage.
"I want to make sure that the Legislature is subject to the same level of accountability," she said. "That's really important. The sun should shine as brightly on both branches."
The Michigan Republican Party accused Whitmer of "breaking a major campaign promise" by not voluntarily opening her office to record requests. In the campaign, she pledged to do so "if the Legislature won't act" — prompting GOP spokesman Tony Zammit to call her campaign "nothing more than rhetoric." Lawmakers have not yet started voting on legislation in the new two-year session, however.
At the event, Whitmer signed a directive that she said will close loopholes that state officials have used to slow down the FOIA process. It orders the directors of departments and agencies to designate a "transparency liaison" to facilitate record requests and to advocate for disclosure quickly and in a cost-efficient way. Agencies sometimes tell media outlets it will cost thousands of dollars to provide documents.