TIM SKUBICK: Legislators meet behind closed doors, avoid public eye

Slap the word “secret” on anything associated with state government and you have every correspondent’s rapped attention in town.

Use the same word and officials such as Gov. Rick Snyder are more likely to use the word “overblown” to describe the withholding of information from the news media. In most instances it is hardly a capital offense.

Recently the Detroit News discovered a panel of non-educators working behind the scenes to draft a new way to educate kids. The reporter did not pass judgment on whether this was right or wrong, but the governor dismissed it with the overblown adjective.

This governor is like every other governor. They do stuff in secret all the time and the truth be known, the legislature does the same thing and while reporters may not like it, it is a fact of political life.

Oh, sure, there is the state’s Open Meetings law which critics contend has more loopholes than that proverbial slice of Swiss cheese.

Take the Michigan House for example. All of its committee meetings, by law, have to be open to the news media and public and all of them are.

Ah, but.

Over the last few years however, the house leadership from both parties has engaged in what they affectionately refer to as “work groups.” These are lawmakers with a common interest in a certain subject who meet outside the committee process and guess what?

Yep. The time and dates of the sessions are rarely revealed so the meetings go on behind closed doors where major decisions are made and then when they are darn good and ready, the media and public are brought back into the loop.

Some opponents of the work groups would suggest it is, at best, violating the spirit of the Open Meetings Act, but the practice continues even as you read.

The governor, after being in office only a few months, first confronted all this when he created a special committee to reinvent the law enforcement system. He ordered it to meet behind closed doors and when the media protested, he explained that eventually what ever the group did would be made public and there would be plenty of time for everyone else to digest what they decided.

He was right, of course, and lawmakes are also correct regarding the final work product of the work groups. All of this stuff will eventually get a public airing and a public vote, so what’s the diff?

The diff is, there is no way to determine who or what groups are influencing all these secret committees or work groups not to mention all the ad hoc meetings of state officials at the local watering hole where critical decisions are often put into motion.

Are lobbyists allowed access to these sessions?

Are the opponents to what the groups are doing allowed into the discussion? In the case of the non-educators trying to reinvent a cheaper form of schooling, the traditional education lobby was never invited. The leaders of the secret meetings felt those folks would not be open to change anyway, so why bother brigning them in?

They were spot on. They didn’t want to haggle with the opponents while drafting recommendations knowing that the hagglers would have an opportunity to do that once the document was released.

Here’s the dirty little secret about all forms of government: If the players want to hide and make decisions without any immediate media coverage, or public input, they will find a way to do it. Of course, there is some push back once the “secrecy” is revealed, but it appears to be a risk they are willing to take.

Tim Skubick is Michigan’s Senior Capitol correspondent and has anchored the weekly public TV series Off the Record since 1972. He also covers the Capitol and politics for WLNS-TV6 in Lansing.