by Scott McClallen
Several newspapers sued the Michigan Independent Citizen’s Redistricting Committee (MICRC), alleging the MICRC violated the state’s Constitution by hiding two memos from the public.
The Detroit News, Bridge Magazine, and the Detroit Free Press filed the suit in the Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday. The plaintiffs seek to obtain two memos discussed in an Oct. 27 closed-door meeting.
More than a month later, Michiganders still don’t have answers from a commission that touts transparency and the Constitution mandates “shall conduct all of its business at open meetings.”
The MICRC has held many open meetings to listen to public comments from communities statewide. Maps redrawn by the committee will establish voting districts for the next 10 years.
The lawsuit follows a 7-5 vote by the MICRC to continue hiding memos from the public. Committee attorneys said if the MICRC waives attorney-client privilege, they might not be able to reinstate it, which could complicate future litigation.
The MICRC has rejected a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests from conservative group Michigan Rising Action (MRA), despite a nonbinding opinion from Attorney General Dana Nessel that it “must” release the memos.
“We made every effort to convince the redistricting commission to follow the law and, unfortunately, all of those attempts failed,” Detroit News Publisher Gary Miles told the News. “As the first independent citizens redistricting commission, this group will set the precedent for decades. That precedent must be for openness and not secrecy.”
In 2018, Michigan voters were fed up with in-power politicians drawing their own districts behind closed doors to protect incumbents. As a result, 61% of voters in the state approved a ballot proposal that established an independent citizen’s redistricting committee. But this group is also acting behind closed doors and hiding documents.
News groups aren’t the only ones concerned about the redistricting committee – so are Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. Last week, the Senate unanimously approved Senate Bill 728 to ban the MICRC from meeting in a closed session for any purpose.
Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, said the MICRC was taking “enormous liberties” with the Constitution whether it can meet in closed session.
“The Constitution doesn’t say they operate under the Open Meetings Act,” McBroom said in a phone interview. “It says they shall have open meetings. So I’m just striving to make it abundantly clear that the Open Meetings Act is not their source of authority for having these closed sessions or from withholding documents from people.”
The conservative MRA also condemned the commission’s secrecy.
“Michigan’s so-called ‘Independent’ Redistricting Commission has led a process shrouded in secrecy,” Executive Director Eric Ventimiglia said in a statement. “The people of Michigan thought they were getting an open redistricting process, but decisions continue to be made behind closed doors. It is shameful that this Commission is more committed to their lawyers than acting in a transparent manner.”
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Scott McClallen is a staff writer covering Michigan and Minnesota for The Center Square. A graduate of Hillsdale College, his work has appeared on Forbes.com and FEE.org. Previously, he worked as a financial analyst at Pepsi.
Photo “Michigan State Capitol” by Christine CC BY 2.0.