March 18 2009 at 12:00 AM

Midwest Open Government Project - 2009

New study finds five Midwestern states have dim sunshine laws

Clouded transparency leads to chilled participation

CAC_OpenGov_GraphicCHICAGO—While every state in the nation has laws that require public access to government records and meetings, in five Midwestern states that were recently analyzed, documents are often kept secret and doors can remain tightly closed. 

According to a study released Wednesday by the Citizen Advocacy Center in celebration of Sunshine Week (March 15-21), open government laws in Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota have systemic barriers that chill public participation and access to government, which weakens our democratic system designed to be by, for and of the people.

The Center analyzed each state’s Freedom of Information and Open Meetings Acts and found striking similarities between all states, including:

  • Open government laws are sporadically enforced, which means public bodies are more likely to be unresponsive to records requests and employ exemptions to keep meetings closed.
  • No state surveyed has a government office with statutory authority specifically created to oversee and enforce sunshine laws.
  • State employees are not adequately trained to carry out open government policies and may be unintentionally violating the laws.
  • Citizens may be able to attend meetings, but there are very few opportunities to participate.

Download the reports and news releases:

News coverage of the report

Go to the model statutes the Citizen Advocacy Center developed for each state’s open meetings and freedom of information laws.

“For our democracy to thrive and grow, we must have open government laws that are both strong and effective,” said Terry Pastika, Executive Director and Community Lawyer for the Citizen Advocacy Center. “Without forceful sunshine laws, the public can not fully participate in the democratic process, knowledgably discuss issues of public concern, make informed judgments about the actions of elected officials, or monitor government to make sure it’s acting in their interest.”

The study found that efforts to obtain information from government agencies throughout these Midwestern states are hampered by various factors. Examples include:

  • Illinois’s public disclosure laws contain more than 50 different loopholes —twice as many as all the other states combined.
  • Michigan’s Governor and Lt. Governor are exempt from the state’s open government laws.
  • Minnesota’s complex web of state laws and regulations governing public information makes usage by average citizens virtually impossible.  
  • The failure of Ohio’s Open Meetings Law to apply to home rule public bodies allow municipalities to operate in darkness without impunity.
  • Wisconsin’s lack of firm deadlines to respond to information requests allow public bodies ignore production of public records and blocks access to information. 

For the study, the Center reviewed each state’s laws as well as more than 1,000 legal cases, attorney general opinions, and professional publications to produce a comprehensive report on each state’s strengths and weaknesses. The Center also provided specific reform recommendations that good government advocates can use to advance changes within each state. Reforms range from changing how fees should be levied to implementing training programs for public officials.

The study, conducted by the Center and funded by The Joyce Foundation, is distributed by the Midwest Democracy Network, an alliance of political reform advocates who are working to strengthen democracy and build the capacity of the public to participate and affect government decision-making.

The Citizen Advocacy Center is a non-profit, non-partisan community legal organization dedicated to building democracy for the 21st century. Center community lawyers and volunteers focus on strengthening the citizenry’s capacity and motivation to participate in civic affairs, building community resources, and improving democratic protocols within our community institutions.

The Midwest Democracy Network is an alliance of political reform advocates committed to improving democratic institutions in Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio and Wisconsin. The Network includes state-based civic and public interest organizations as well as prominent academic institutions and respected policy and legal experts.

The Joyce Foundation  supports efforts to protect the natural environment of the Great Lakes, to reduce poverty and violence in the region, and to ensure that its people have access to good schools, decent jobs, and a diverse and thriving culture.

Sunshine Week is a national initiative to open a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information. Participants include print, broadcast and online news media, civic groups, libraries, non-profits, schools and others interested in the public’s right to know.