AG Nessel 'embarrassed' by state's lack of transparency

Matt DeYoung • Mar 12, 2019 at 10:00 AM

Michigan’s attorney general, Dana Nessel, called the media “the people’s best friends” while promoting government transparency during an event in Grand Haven to help kick off Sunshine Week on Monday.

Nessel didn’t bother to hide her disgust at the lack of transparency in Michigan government as she talked about how she hopes to change that during her time in office. She also answered numerous audience questions during a 90-minute presentation at the Grand Haven Community Center.

“We had an ‘F’ grade in transparency in this state, so I’m really hopeful I can be part of the process taking that ‘F’ and turning it into at least a ‘C-minus,’” Nessel joked. “No, really, we’d like to be an ‘A.’”

Nessel, who was elected in November 2018 and took office Jan. 1, visited Grand Haven in conjunction with the Michigan Press Association as part of its Sunshine Week events. Sunshine Week is an annual event aimed at promoting government transparency.

Going along with that theme, Nessel talked about the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act during her presentation.

“These are two of the most important tools that reporters have to keep us honest and keep us on our toes when we work in government,” she said.

In the past, several former Michigan attorney generals worked with the Michigan Press Association to hold similar seminars throughout the state.

“Unfortunately, these fell by the wayside the last eight years, so I’m really honored to restart the tradition, and what better time to do it than Sunshine Week,” Nessel said. “In my office, we’re constantly receiving requests for information, and that’s appropriate. We should be receiving those requests.

“The media is the public’s watchdog,” she continued. “And, unlike some others, I do not subscribe to the theory that the media is the enemy of the people. In fact, I believe the media is the people’s best friend. Honestly, we deserve as public officials to be under the microscope. We serve the people and they deserve to know what we are doing and how we’re doing it.”

The Freedom of Information Act specifically provides that any person has the right to request access to public records or information, while the Open Meetings Act, as its name implies, requires meetings of certain public bodies to be open to the public, and to require notice and the keeping of meeting minutes.

“You who are here as public officials are absolutely FOIA-able, and so am I,” she said.

Nessel expressed her frustration with Michigan’s lack of transparency.

“It’s upsetting to me, and I’m embarrassed, that Michigan is the only state in the nation where state law exempts the governor, the lieutenant governor and the legislature from requirements of the state’s Freedom of Information Act,” she said. “It’s awful. Not only that, we’re one of only eight states to receive a failing grade for integrity from the Center for Public Integrity. We are absolutely failing, no question about it.”

Michigan Press Association Public Affairs Manager Lisa McGraw said she appreciated Nessel’s message, as well as the several questions asked by the audience.

“Especially with it being Sunshine Week, having the attorney general come out and highlight the importance of the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act is important not only for us in the media but also for the public, so they know their rights as far as access to records that their tax dollars are funding,” McGraw said. “I was really excited by the turnout — it’s great to see so many community people interested in this subject, and the breadth of the questions. It was really good. It gave her an opportunity to answer on a lot of different issues.”

Nessel’s entire speech is available to watch digitally at www.ghtrib.com.

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