By Ashleigh Costello
LANSING, Mich. – State lawmakers are considering a new bill that would ban the use of government or school resources for political or union-related activities.
State House Bill 4201 was introduced in early February by Republican state Rep. Tim Kelly. A similar bill was introduced last year, but failed to make it past a committee vote, reports the Livingston Daily.
The legislation was originally crafted after union officials at a Southeastern Michigan school district were accused of using taxpayer-funded resources to conduct union business.
The late conservative activist and political commentator Chetly Zarko filed a Freedom of Information Act request for emails sent on the district’s server to and from three union members who taught at Howell Public Schools and a Howell Education Association official.
The request fielded more than 5,000 emails sent between the union members over a three-month span during collective bargaining negotiations with the school board. It was obvious that the union was using school resources to plot negotiation strategies against the board.
Zarko’s request for copies of the emails was ultimately denied as state courts determined they were not subject to the state’s freedom of information law.
Howell Education Association President Jay McDowell said Zarko’s search for emails was a “fishing expedition.”
“Most of what the bill says we can’t do, we don’t do anyway. So it behooves us to use private emails to do all of our union work and not to do that on a public internet system where administration can look at the emails at any time,” said McDowell.
But Eric Rothoff, head of a Muskegon-based watchdog organization, told the news site the protection guaranteed by the courts makes it difficult for even school administrators to legally access teachers’ emails, even though those emails are on a public server, funded by taxpayer dollars.
“They were able to get away with it, so they’ll keep doing it. Now, they have a precedent where they can do it,” said Rothoff.
That is, unless House Bill 4201 passes.
The bill states “a public employee or collective bargaining organization shall not use publicly-owned property, facilities, or services, including an electronic mail system” for political lobbying or fundraising, or union business.
The bill would also bar use of public resources for “solicitation of employees for membership in a collective-bargaining organization,” reports the news site.
Doug Pratt, spokesman for the Michigan Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, said the implications of the bill extend far beyond email.
“Now they’re saying that a collective-bargaining organization can’t even talk to the employees when they’re not in front of students at school. That’s what this bill says,” said Pratt.
The MEA is expected to contest the bill.
The bill does not outline any penalties for persons found in violation.