Sunshine Week focus protects public’s rights

Published 1:12 am Friday, March 17, 2006

By Staff
Friday, March 17, 2006
This is Sunshine Week, seven days to focus on the critical need to protect public access to government.
But this is America, you say. We have the First Amendment. We have freedom of the press. We have the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act. We have journalists who report on everything government is doing. Why the need for Sunshine Week?
From my perspective as president of the Michigan Press Association, the need has never been greater. In many ways, these are dark and threatening days indeed for the public's right to know.
A cloud came over Sunshine Week just last week in Michigan when our state Senate gutted HB 5675, an initiative sponsored by Rep. Rick Baxter (R-Hanover) which would have made available to the public the list of all people with criminal convictions employed by Michigan's school systems.
By the way, The Detroit News started this off early in the year by filing a Freedom of Information Act request for release of that list which was met with a court injunction on behalf of the Michigan Education Association. This action barred release of the list of 4,600 offenses including 2,200 felonies, 100 sex crimes, 23 homicides, 355 drug felonies, etc., according to The Detroit News accounts.
House leaders jumped in with the Michigan Press Association to develop a bill which would allow the release of the list - on a delayed basis with time for cleaning up inaccuracies (vetting) - and fast-tracked it through to the Senate. The sun was shining and the forecast looked promising.
In the meantime, though, there were many articles published around the state repeating accounts of falsely accused school employees included in the list; focusing on potential inaccuracies in the list rather than the larger issue, openness in the interest of the safety of Michigan's school children and the parents' right to know if people with a criminal past are taking care of their children five days each week.
Even though many newspapers took the stance that access to this list was the most important aspect of the issue because it potentially affected hundreds of thousands of children, those stories of some falsely accused school employees led the Senate to send back an eviscerated version of the bill to the House. Our only hope is the House prevails and stops the bloodletting, restoring full access to the list after a brief review period to vet it.
The real crime here is that school workers are being held above the law. Granted, the public would still have access to felonies and misdemeanors involving criminal sexual conduct and assault in the wake of the Senate's plundering of the bill, but other misdemeanors will not be subject to access.
What about shoplifters or those who have plea-bargained theft down to a misdemeanor? Do we want those people entrusted with our children's purses or wallets left in the locker room? What about drunk drivers who have pleaded down to misdemeanor level? Should they be driving students on a field trip?
One after another, groups are pointing to themselves as being worthy of exclusion from what our forefathers designed to be transparency in government. Our free press is in place not to snoop around for our own curiosity, but to stand in the gap for the citizenry, seeking out and reporting information they have a right to know.
An initiative passed late last year in Michigan to do background checks on workers in nursing homes and adult foster care homes. Hurray! A monumental step in the safeguarding of our vulnerable senior citizens and mentally impaired people, many of whom are helpless in nursing home beds or unable to make decisions. But wait, embedded in that legislation is a FOIA exemption keeping that background information from the public. Now brewing is an omnibus bill, HB 5762, to roll together several statutes regarding nursing homes and adult foster care - including this one; a good thing, but also an opportunity to remove that FOIA exemption. Why? These are licensed by the state of Michigan and receive state and federal funds through Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. This information thus meets the criteria of what should be subject to FOIA.
What is the point of background checks of school employees - who have direct care of our children - or potential nursing home or adult foster care workers - who care for our frail elderly or people completely dependent on others? Do we just do this for the edification and information of administrators in nursing or adult foster care homes, schools, law-enforcement agencies, or for the supervisors of some other group of government employees or workers whose paychecks are paid with public funds?
While it is crucial for these officials to have this information for hiring and firing purposes, we believe it is even more critical for a parent to have this information to be able to choose whether to leave their child in a school where someone who committed a crime - even one at misdemeanor level that may actually represent a plea bargain from something more serious - has direct care of their child. Placing a family member in a nursing home or adult foster care facility is wrenching. Wouldn't you feel more confident being able to review the backgrounds of the people taking care of your family member who is simply too vulnerable to live alone?
In Sunshine Week, the slope is slippery when it comes to the public access our forefathers designed for future generations. An open and transparent government was one of the top objectives of the framers of this democracy. They guaranteed it - or so they thought - in the First Amendment. And it has worked pretty well through all the years we have been a nation.
An accurate, responsible free press can be a deterrent to those fears that may have prompted the MEA to seek the barring of that list's disclosure. When we fall short of the principles and objectives of a responsible, accurate and free press, we only jeopardize open access to government - for everyone. It is as much our job to protect access as it is to use it in our newsgathering.
My Sunshine Week hope is to see the language restored to HB 5675 making all felony and misdemeanor convictions available when it returns to the House. After all, not all senators supported its dilution. Sen. Alan Cropsey (R-DeWitt), for example, argued the importance of knowing what kind of offenses school employees have committed at all levels.
Furthermore, the reporting of the inaccuracy of the initial list, I think, shows that our journalists don't want to see innocent teachers or school workers hung out to dry. This demonstrated commitment to fairness and objectivity - looking for all the angles - and should assure people of the level of professionalism the press will take when receiving and reporting information.
I am a member of this nation's free press and as such take great pains to ensure the accuracy of what I print. I challenge my fellow journalists to diligently adhere to the highest standards of our profession.
I am also a parent with children in various stages of their education and I have tremendous respect for educators. I have had three grandparents in nursing homes. However, I want to know the background of my loved ones' caregivers. I am demanding it here, in black-and-white.
Join me.