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OUR VIEWS: Building permits shouldn't be secret

Anonymous • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:47 AM

The Freedom of Information Act is aimed at creating government transparency in combination with the Open Meetings Act, which restricts the issues public officials can discuss behind closed doors. The acts are known as the “Sunshine Laws.”

What is public and what is private came to light again recently when Amway heir David Van Andel obtained a building permit for a $3.6 million home he is building across the channel from the Holland State Park on the shore of Lake Michigan. Park Township Manager Gerald Felix prohibited a reporter from viewing the public building file for the Van Andel home because it contains “information of a personal nature.”

An appeal to the Park Township Board on Oct. 11 led to a 5-1 vote to reverse Felix’s decision and allow supervised public access to building files.

Now some Park Township leaders are asking state lawmakers to accomplish what they could not under Michigan law: preventing the public from fully accessing the public information in building permit files.

A bill introduced by state Rep. Amanda Price, R-Park Township, would prevent local governments from making certain residential building information available for public review. Her proposed amendment to the state’s Freedom of Information Act would “exempt from disclosure records or information related to environmental, building or other permits for the construction of a specific single-family or two-family dwelling.”

Price said she wrote the bill at the request of Park Township leaders.

Building files are available for public review in other Michigan communities. Decades-old state law says the files are public, based on federal "Sunshine Laws," which have been upheld in numerous court cases.

Advocates for public access say the open files are important for public safety concerns, taxation fairness and government transparency.

People should be concerned when a government tries to deny access to building records.

Limiting access is a dangerous and slippery slope. If government limits one thing, what will they seek to limit next? What do they not want the public to know?

A building inspector could have a cozy relationship with the person seeking the permit, turning a blind eye to something that shouldn’t be allowed. The building inspector could make an honest mistake and allow something that violates the building code to occur.

These problems are tough to remedy once the structure has been built. That’s why neighbors and others should have the right to check things out before construction begins.

Transparency is the best policy.

Our Views reflects the majority opinion of the members of the Grand Haven Tribune editorial board: Kevin Hook, Cheryl Welch, Matt DeYoung, Liz Stuck and Fred VandenBrand. What do you think? E-mail us a letter to the editor to news@grandhaventribune.com or log-in to our website and leave a comment below.

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