BY MICHAEL WALTON firstname.lastname@example.org and BRIAN McGILLIVARY, email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — 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.
NMC board Chair Doug Bishop last week told the Record-Eagle trustees receive handbooks on open meetings and public records rules, but they receive no specific training on how to abide by those state laws.
"It’s not complicated,” Bishop said.
Richardson said he’s never experienced anything similar to the NMC board’s email deliberations during his time as an elected official.
"The city bends over backwards in the other direction, and in my mind it’s better to overcompensate than not do enough,” Richardson said. “You just don’t start making those kinds of decisions out of public view.”
Mayor Michael Estes said he was surprised by NMC trustees’ actions and never understood their opposition to televising their meetings.
"I can’t think of any situation where the city was harmed by having its discussions in a public forum and televised,” Estes said. “It’s just the opposite. We’ve had discussions in public forums in which the public later brought us information we weren’t aware of.”
Public business can be ‘messy’
Herb Lemcool, chair of the Grand Traverse County Board of Commissioners, said county board members do not communicate by email as a commission.
"Sometimes when you’re doing all your business in public it can become messy,” Lemcool said. “Sometimes the discussion becomes a news item, not the decision, but that’s the way we have to do business.”
County Commissioner Chris Maxbauer said it appeared NMC board members violated open meetings laws, based on the Record-Eagle’s account of the email communications.
"It should have been done in open meetings,” Maxbauer said. “What else is there to say?”
Maxbauer added the county requires all members of public boards to attend at least one training session on open meetings and public records laws.
Conducting public business at public meetings is the only way to hold government accountable to the public, Maxbauer said.
"It also gives the opportunity to the public to hear what commissioners are thinking, and it allows them to come forward and say ‘you know what; you’re wrong,’” she said.
Tim Arends called NMC trustees’ email exchanges a “teachable moment” for area boards on how not to conduct public business. Arends, executive director of Traverse City Light & Power, spoke with his chairman, John Taylor, about sending out an email to all board members asking them to read the Record-Eagle article. But Arends reminded Taylor of the city’s practice to make sure all emails sent to board or commission members be labeled: “Do not reply to all.”
"It’s fine to disseminate information, but they can’t have a two-way conversation in person or through an email with a majority of board members,” Arends said.
Arends said city officials stress to their board members that they must constantly be vigilant to make sure their conversations don’t drift toward any topic that has the potential to become a meeting agenda item.
"You need to recognize in these volunteer positions you are dealing with lay people that don’t understand all of the ins and outs of the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act, and it’s up to management to educate its board members,” Arends said. “That’s very important.”
Light & Power officials just conducted open meetings and public access training during a regular televised meeting. Arends said they will use the tape of that meeting for new board member education.
Julie Puckett, vice president of Traverse City Area Public Schools’ board and an adjunct mathematics professor at NMC, was “a little bit surprised” when she read about the level of discussion that occurred between college trustees over email.
“That’s not what happens at TCAPS,” Puckett said. “I feel like most of our discussion happens in our committee meetings and in the board room.”
Puckett said she received a handbook about open meetings laws and attended a training session when she joined the school board. She also said TCAPS Superintendent Stephen Cousins keeps board members well-informed about what they can and cannot do outside public meetings.
TCAPS board member Gary Appel said conducting business in public meetings can be awkward — like when TCAPS board members interviewed candidates this year for an open board seat and discussed their weaknesses and strengths in front of a television audience — but it’s the right thing to do.
“We are stewards of the public interest and the public’s dollars and that makes it all the more important that we create every opportunity for anyone in the public, no matter how small the group might be, to understand and be privy to what we do and how we do it,” Appel said.
Appel added in many instances he’d like to deliberate with other board members outside public meetings — including the committee of three board members tasked with searching for a new superintendent ahead of Cousins’ retirement this summer.
“I would love to be able to send my thoughts in an email to all board members and hear their thoughts, but I can’t do it and I think that’s completely fair,” he said. “It’s the business of the board to be very visible and very public.”