TRAVERSE CITY — Northwestern Michigan College’s elected officials debated in a flurry of emails whether to televise their monthly board meetings, a behind-the-scenes decision-making process that altered some trustees’ public opposition and occurred outside the public eye.
Trustees’ recurring, non-public deliberations on that topic between Jan. 20 and Jan. 27 this year violated Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, a legal expert said.
At least six of seven NMC trustees and other college officials exchanged emails and other contacts as they grappled with whether to televise their public meetings. The Record-Eagle obtained the emails through multiple requests under Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, and trustees’ discussions in those emails range from some trustees’ strident opposition to recording meetings to other trustees’ push for more transparency.
The emails also include NMC board Chairman Doug Bishop’s obscene denunciation of the Record-Eagle.
Michigan Press Association attorney Robin Luce-Herrmann studied the NMC emails obtained by the Record-Eagle.
“My review of the emails indicates that a quorum of the board was deliberating on an issue outside of an open meeting,” Luce-Herrmann said. “A quorum of the board deliberating outside an open meeting is a violation of the Open Meetings Act.”
“The emails indicate that there were deliberations taking place, that there was an effort to avoid having those deliberations take place at an open meeting, and there was an expressed desire to provide as little information as possible,” Luce-Herrmann said.
State law requires public bodies to meet in public to deliberate and conduct public business. The Record-Eagle’s investigation of NMC trustees’ emails prompted the newspaper’s executives to allege “repeated violations of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act “ in March 26 letters to Bishop and NMC President Tim Nelson.
Nelson replied in writing on April 2, and stated college officials forwarded the newspaper’s letter to NMC’s legal counsel, who he expected would “establish a process for investigation, which could lead to potential recommendations for future action.”