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Public safety transparency

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01/29/2016 - Michigan is the worst. At least that was the finding of a 2015 national report card issued by the Center for Public Integrity grading states on governmental ethics, accountability and transparency. While there were only three states with grades higher than a D+, Michigan was ranked dead last out of the 11 that received failing grades.

Among the subjects that contributed to Michigan's dismal ranking on accountability and transparency is the state's failing grade on access to public records. Those who have done their homework know the various loopholes in the state's campaign finance laws, as well as the fact that the Michigan legislature and governor's office are exempt from the state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The impact to the public is multi-fold, preventing them from learning what is going on in the state and in their own communities, as well as impacting the ability of news organizations to determine news content and oversee both state and local government as watchdogs.

While state agencies and local governments are subject to the state's FOIA laws, the process of obtaining public records through the FOIA requests may at times hamper efforts by news agencies to share information with the public in a timely manner, particularly in cases of public safety information.

First Amendment attorney Herschel Fink, who serves as legal counsel for the Detroit Free Press, said while he hasn't received many complaints regarding access to police records recently from the newspapers he represents, the issue of transparency has become more opaque.

"When I worked for The (Detroit) News, you would call (police departments), and you would get pretty honest responses from agencies you were covering. Or, you would walk in and look at the records, which I view the law still requiring," said Fink, who worked as an editor and reporter for the paper years ago while working through law school. "If anything, the FOIA law that went into effect in 1976 made it more difficult. In places like Birmingham, which has been bad for years to get information, particularly if someone thought it was sensitive information, they would have you submit a FOIA, and then delay and make it less newsworthy by the delay.

"I haven't seen many problems. Maybe that's because news organizations are less able to cover them as they used to. They have bigger beats, and it's more difficult to get information. There's no specific instance, but I do know police agencies like Birmingham and Bloomfield Hills, if the news involves someone of prominence, it's hard to get, and it's hard to get in a timely way."

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