Lansing – Legislators are looking to shed light on state officials by expanding the Open Meetings Act to require audio recordings of licensing and other rule-making boards and commissions.
While people can attend meetings of public bodies and record or broadcast them, state law does not require them to be recorded.
This proposed amendment requires a record of a meeting as audio, video with sound or by a broadcast capable of being recorded. These recordings would have to be available to the public for at least a year after the meeting.
Supporters of the bill say it provides a strong baseline for improving access to government meetings.
Having access to these recordings would be a valuable tool for journalists, said Lisa McGraw, the public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association.
Broadcast representatives agree.
“Anytime that we’re able to get a recording of what is happening from public officials, I think that’s important and critical,” said Sam Klemet, the president-elect of the Michigan Association of Broadcasters.
“Obviously we are an industry that supports the Open Meetings Act and want to see that in as strong of a capacity as possible,” Klemet said.
To be the megaphone for the local communities they serve, having access to meetings is important for broadcasters, as well as members of the public, Klemet said.
But the bill could go farther.
“I would like to see it applied to the Open Meetings Act as a whole, not just to specific state commissions,” McGraw said. This would require recordings of all public meetings.
“I think if (the bill) was done right, it could be a boon for sure. It would grant easier access,” McGraw said.
The idea came from a citizen’s discovery that the state Construction Code Commission stopped recording its meetings in 2019, according to a legislative analysis of the bill.
Recordings of the commission meetings were previously available through the Freedom of Information Act. The citizen needed the recording of a specific meeting to appeal one of the commission’s decisions. The lack of one cost the citizen the appeal.
The meeting minutes never tell the full story, and in 2021 it’s very easy to record things, said Rep. Steve Johnson, R-Wayland, one of the co-sponsors.
If you can record one meeting, why not record all of them, Johnson said.
“Being able to go back and FOIA request the entire meeting, it allows someone to get a lot more context than you could unless you were physically present at the meeting,” said Steve Delie, director of open government at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland and the volunteer executive director for the Michigan Coalition for Open Government.
The bill is cosponsored by Johnson and Reps. Gary Howell, R-North Branch, and Jeff Yaroch, R-Richmond.
While audio is a good starting point, seeing and hearing a meeting provides the most context about the meeting and its atmosphere, supporters said.
“I’m in favor of video recording, but I think it’s just a good first step to start with audio and show ‘Hey, this can be done, it’s really not that hard to do,’” Johnson said. “Hopefully in the future once we get this established a future legislative body will say ‘Hey, let’s expand this to video.’”
“At this point we’re trying to get done what’s actually possible, what the governor might be willing to sign,” Johnson said.
The Department of Civil Rights opposed the bill, unless it could find some way to ensure these records are equally accessible under the Americans with Disabilities Act and Michigan’s Persons With a Disability Civil Rights Act.
Audio and video records may need to be transcribed into a written or Braille document. These accommodations could result in considerable costs, according to the department’s testimony.
“Right now you have nothing and the Department of Civil Rights (says) ‘an audio recording, that’s not fair to those who can’t hear.’ Well those who can’t hear, they’re getting nothing right now,” Johnson said.
It may be worthwhile to have an addition to the bill to accommodate someone’s disability, Delie said.
While these circumstances shouldn’t be excessively common because these recordings provide either sound, or sound and video, citizens shouldn’t be excluded from actively engaging in their government, Delie said.
Representatives of the Department of Technology, Management and Budget also opposed the bill, according to the legislative analysis.
The department has concerns about the administrative and technical aspects and the costs related to carrying out the bill, Laura Wotruba, a communications specialist for the agency, wrote in an email.
“I don’t think that’s a reasonable argument,” Delie said. “Unless the costs are astronomical I don’t think that justifies pushback.”
The bill was approved with 91 votes in favor, 11 against and seven members not voting. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Oversight.