Traverse City Record-Eagle

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May 11, 2014

NMC adds outside public relations help

TRAVERSE CITY — A public relations specialist retained by Northwestern Michigan College officials acknowledged NMC trustees lacked full openness and transparency before a unanimous vote to televise their board meetings.

Gregg Smith, of Traverse City-based Lawton Gallagher Group marketing and communications firm, said there was a “more transparent way” for college board members to conduct business as they deliberated behind the scenes about whether to record meetings and post them online.

“To me, the more transparent way would be to have more active discussion in public meetings,” Smith said. “I think that’s critical for any board, because the public has to understand how boards arrive at these conclusions.”

NMC officials last month hired Smith for public relations help at the rate of $95 per-hour amid a review of whether NMC trustees broke Michigan’s Open Meetings Act in January, when at least six of seven trustees privately deliberated about meeting recordings. NMC officials denied wrongdoing.

Smith weighed in on a letter NMC President Tim Nelson sent to the community college’s employees, assisted in NMC’s lawyer’s review of trustee emails, and also is to help NMC craft a public relations and media plan.

NMC also employs a full-time public relations and marketing specialist, Andy Dolan, at about

$73,000 per-year, plus benefits, but college officials said they could retain Smith for additional work at a rate of more than $3,300 per-month, though that agreement was not finalized as of last week.

Emails obtained by the Record-Eagle through state Freedom of Information Act requests showed trustees’ non-public, electronic and telephone debate between Jan. 20 and Jan. 27 prompted some trustees — who adamantly and publicly opposed video taping meetings — to reverse course with little public discussion and unanimously agree with others who pushed for meeting recordings.

Record-Eagle executives alleged the behind-the-scenes communications violated Michigan’s OMA in letters sent to college officials March 26.

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