TRAVERSE CITY — Local government officials expressed surprise and concern over a newspaper report that Northwestern Michigan College trustees may have violated state law when they used email and other non-public means to deliberate and decide a proposal to videotape their meetings.
Some local officials said NMC’s elected leaders clearly violated state law, and others in various governments throughout Grand Traverse County said their boards operate in stark contrast to the way NMC officials conducted business in a serious of emails obtained by the Record-Eagle under the state Freedom of Information Act.
NMC officials’ emails were detailed in an April 17 report in the Record-Eagle.
Area officials agreed on one thing: Deliberating and debating policy questions by email isn’t the proper way to conduct public business.
At least six of seven NMC trustees exchanged emails and other non-public contacts between Jan. 20 and Jan. 27 this year as they grappled with whether to record or televise their monthly board meetings. The electronic debate eventually prompted some trustees to change their positions prior to the board’s vote at a public meeting without engaging in a substantive public discussion. A state media attorney who reviewed the emails said the communications indicated trustees conducted public business outside of public meetings.
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act requires public officials to conduct business in public meetings in all but very few cases.
Barbara Budros, a Traverse City commissioner and attorney, called NMC trustees’ exchange of emails “a clear violation” of Michigan’s OMA.
“They were clearly deciding they were going to change their (position), and that’s a big no-no,” Budros said. “They should know better, and if they don’t know better, they need some education.”
City Commissioner Ross Richardson said he attended an orientation on open meetings and public records shortly after his election to the city commission, and Grand Traverse County offered a seminar on the subjects once or twice a year when he was a county commissioner.