Lawmakers need workplace oversight

by Greg McNeilly, chairman of the Michigan Freedom Fund

Voters should be able to see emails that could shed light on allegations about state Rep. Brian Banks’ conduct. (Photo: Dale G. Young / The Detroit News)Anyone who’s ever worked a job with a company email account knows the way it works. If an employee uses email at the office, the IT department — and the boss — has access to those emails, too.

We’re asked to click terms of service agreements or sign email conduct policy documents, understanding that what happens on the clock is, quite literally, the company’s business.

Why is it, then, that your employees — lawmakers in Lansing — don’t have to worry about you seeing their email?

In Michigan, lawmakers are not subject to the state’s Freedom of Information Act. That means that the men and women you elect (and pay) to represent you in Lansing can do and say whatever they want on your time knowing full well you’ll never have access to their records.

That’s not right, and it should change.

The Michigan Freedom Fund has spent years calling for greater transparency in Lansing, and the first step should be expanding the state’s FOIA laws to cover the legislature.

Of course, there are a lot of reasons many politicians might not want the public finding out what they’re doing on company time.

Take Brian Banks, for instance. Banks is embroiled in a lawsuit filed by a former state employee who alleges the Detroit Democrat sexually harassed — and then fired — him for refusing his advances.

Did Banks’ staffer reach out to Democratic caucus services, then-state Rep. (and current Michigan Democratic Party chairman) Brandon Dillon, or current Minority Leader Tim Greimel to report his boss’s behavior? How did Dillon or Greimel respond?

We don’t know. Banks’ constituents don’t have access to written or email records between the office, the lawmaker, his alleged victim, House Democrats, Dillon or Greimel.

Then there’s state Sen. Virgil Smith, also a Detroit Democrat. There’s no hiding the details surrounding Smith’s alleged assault of his ex-wife with fists and an assault rifle — they’ve been all over the news.

We also know from reports that he’s expected to present an insanity defense at trial.

If a sitting state senator is preparing to swear that he is and for months has been insane, his constituents are right to ask questions.

Has he shown signs of mental instability on the job? Have there been complaints lodged with Senate Minority Leader Jim Ananich?

Another Detroit Democrat, Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, is being investigated by federal prosecutors for her possible role in a Detroit pension fund bribery scandal. Voters would be silly not to wonder how Tinsley-Talabi conducts business since her move from City Hall and to the state Capitol.

And it’s not just Democrats who could use a little more sunshine. Knowing the boss may be reading that email you’re typing keeps us all that much more honest. It’s human nature. We’re all a lot less likely to spend the workday on personal business — or breaking the rules — when we know someone is watching.

Without reforms that open up the Legislature to the same level of oversight nearly every other employee experiences on the job, lawmakers are free to conduct business in the shadows, secure in the knowledge they can get away with anything.


Originally posted at The Detroit News

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