National International

Snyder doesn't have to release Flint emails under FOIA

Heather Walker - GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) - Gov. Rick Snyder will give his annual State of the State address on Tuesday, and some are hoping that he announces the release of documents regarding the state's involvement in the Flint water crisis.

But he doesn't have to give up those documents. Michigan's governor is protected from the Freedom of Information Act. It's one of only two states with such protections.

Common Cause Michigan, a nonpartisan watchdog for government accountability, has circulated a petition demanding Snyder drop his executive privilege and release internal emails and other documents concerning the crisis. So far, more than 30,000 people have signed.

The water crisis has been ongoing for about two years, but the state didn't really get involved until October 2015 and the crisis has gained national attention only in recent weeks.

In a Monday interview with the National Journal, Snyder said he knew last summer that his chief of staff had concerns about Flint's water situation, but said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality told his office there was nothing to worry about. He admitted he should have followed up more aggressively.

"It's ter­rible to have the situ­ation in Flint hap­pen and I'm re­spons­ible as the gov­ernor of the state," Snyder told the Journal.

"This is a mess. I mean, I feel ter­rible about all this hap­pen­ing. And that's why I'm work­ing hard to do everything I can to re­pair the dam­age and then ac­tu­ally work to strengthen Flint and the cit­izens," he continued.

But the governor also said he wouldn't resign over the issue, as has been suggested by some. He said he wants to regain the public trust he's lost.

"I want to solve this problem. I don't want to walk away from it," Snyder told the Journal.

Some say it's time the governor release his documents about the crisis because citizens deserve answers about what went wrong, when and why.

When journalists want to get to the bottom of something, we use the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a federal law that provides an avenue to get unreleased information controlled by the government. However, since 1976, after the Watergate scandal, Michigan's governor has been exempt. Michigan and Massachusetts are the only two states that allow their governors that privilege.

"There is a lot of outrage about that," said Melanie McElrow, the executive director of Common Cause Michigan. "We think that it's high time the governor's office released any relevant information. Emails, documents that could help folks get to the bottom of what happened."

At least a handful of  Michigan lawmakers have tried to change the governor's FOIA exemptions, but the bills have been unsuccessful.

"Any time that politicians are able to hide behind these exemptions, the voters are the ones that hurt," McElow said. "And in this case, children and families have been hurting."

The federal government is investigating the water crisis. But will that investigation result in enough accountability and transparency without the governor releasing documents to the public?

"We hope that a lot of information is brought to light through these investigations, but we won't know until they're done," McElow said, adding that the investigation will take time and residents deserve answers now. "I think people at this point are a little bit frustrated with politicians and don't want any more cover-ups or opportunity to hold information back from them."

Snyder's office released this statement to 24 Hour News 8 on Monday:

"Gov. Snyder has pledged to cooperate fully with all authorities investigating the government's role in the Flint water situation. Governor believes strongly in transparency. While the Governor's Office is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act, the Governor is closely reviewing all aspects of the law."

When 24 Hour News 8 asked if it's legal for the governor to release internal emails, his office said lawyers were looking into that. Snyder also told the National Journal that he was considering releasing the documents.

It remains to be seen whether he will address the issue during the State of the State address.

In Michigan, lawmakers are also exempt from FOIA. About a dozen states have similar rules. In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Michigan in last place among states for having systems in place to deter corruption in state government.

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