Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 4, 2013

Parties agree to let TCAPS actions stand

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — A circuit court judge didn’t immediately decide whether local school officials violated state transparency laws when parties in an open meetings dispute met in court for the first time.

Jason Gillman, a tea party activist and former Grand Traverse County commissioner, is suing Traverse City Area Public schools over an alleged Open Meetings Act violation by the TCAPS Board of Education in December. Both sides on Tuesday agreed to drop a request to invalidate board decisions that resulted from meetings that are at the heart of the lawsuit.

Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power also dismissed TCAPS’ request to sanction Gillman for filing the lawsuit. The district’s counsel referred to Gillman’s claims as “frivolous” in court papers.

But whether the OMA was violated remains unclear, as does whether Gillman had good reason to file his lawsuit, Power said during the hearing.

“I think it’s premature to issue sanctions,” he said.

Gillman said the dismissal was appropriate.

“How would anybody ever try to enforce the law if every time that effort was met with a sanction?” Gillman said. “That’s bullying.”

Gillman originally filed a complaint in March that accused district officials of “misleading the public” as to the time and place of a December board retreat.

He amended the complaint in May to additionally accuse TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins of entering into exchange program “contracts” with two Chinese schools in November, even though the district’s Board of Education neither deliberated nor decided in a public meeting to authorize the agreements.

Gillman’s complaint asked Power to invalidate any decisions reached as a result of discussions at the December meeting and the agreements with the Chinese schools, but those requests were formally dropped during the hearing.

“It’s good to get the request for invalidation out,” TCAPS Board of Education President Kelly Hall said. “We’re basically left with the trial on the merits.”

William Vogelzang, a Grand Rapids-based attorney representing TCAPS in the suit, said he next plans to file a motion asking Power to determine whether there was an OMA violation based on the facts of the case.

“We obviously don’t believe there was,” Vogelzang said.