BY MICHAEL WALTON
— TRAVERSE CITY — A Northwestern Michigan College trustee kept the community college’s president in the loop amid a spate of non-public deliberations before trustees agreed to record their board meetings.
Little discussion preceded trustees’ unanimous vote at a Jan. 27 public meeting to videotape their board meetings, a decision that reversed a policy sub-committee’s recommendation — and some board members’ publicly stated stance — that there was no need to record their meetings.
Emails and other private communications obtained by the Record-Eagle through the state Freedom of Information Act show trustees engaged in behind-the-scenes talks between Jan. 20 and Jan. 27, discussions of which one trustee informed NMC President Tim Nelson four days before the public board meeting.
“I called up Doug this morning to let him know it was my intention to make a motion on Monday that we begin videotape and archiving our meetings, beginning as soon as possible, potentially April,” NMC board vice chair Bill Myers said in a voice mail left for Nelson Jan. 23 . “Not a live broadcast, but at least archives.
“Doug (board chair Doug Bishop) — we discussed it for a while. I gave him my reasons. I think he understands, but at any rate it could go in a few different directions. But I did leave a message for Cheryl (Gore Follette) and for Susan (Sheldon) just to talk to them about it as well, from the policy committee perspective.”
Bishop and NMC trustees Gore Follette and Sheldon served on the policy committee that met Jan. 21. All agreed to recommend the board not record its board meetings.
Trustees’ emails indicate Myers privately contacted at least six of the college’s seven elected trustees as he gathered support for meeting recordings after members of the public called for increased board transparency following the Jan. 20 policy committee meeting.
“Everyone that I’ve touched based with thus far (all except Susan) will support a motion to videotape and create an on-line archive,” Myers wrote NMC Board Chair Doug Bishop on Jan. 26. “Ken (Weaver, NMC trustee) and you specifically hoped to have a unanimous vote on the matter.”
Record-Eagle executives alleged trustees’ non-public communications violated Michigan’s Open Meetings Act in March 26 letters to college officials.
Neither Nelson nor Myers could be reached for comment. Bishop at a public meeting on Monday said no violation of the law occurred and no trustee “ever had any intent to violate the law ... .”
The OMA requires public bodies to conduct nearly all business at public meetings. It forbids a quorum of board members -- or the smallest number necessary to make a decision -- from deliberating outside of public meetings.
NMC attorney Charles Judson said during Monday’s meeting that the OMA allows a board member to conduct an “informal canvass” of how other board members plan to vote on an issue. NMC officials invoked the same informal canvassing argument in response to a February FOIA request from the Record-Eagle.
Robin Luce-Herrmann, a state media law expert and attorney with the Michigan Press Association, said trustees’ private communications went beyond informal canvassing because they included “substantive” discussion about whether to audio or video record meetings, and whether to live broadcast or archive recordings.
“These are the types of discussions that are intended to be captured during deliberations at an open meeting,” she said.
Nelson, in an April 15 email to NMC employees, wrote communication between public board members outside of public meetings is common “as long as it is not a quorum nor is it intended to deliberate or make decisions on behalf of the body.”
Emails from Jan. 23 -- the same day Myers left the voicemail for Nelson -- show Bishop wrote Gore Follette and Sheldon to deliberate about video recordings, including a need for unanimity on the subject.
Bishop wrote that Myers wanted to make a motion at the Jan. 27 board meeting to videotape and archive, not broadcast meetings, “but said he’s also open to a motion to audio record and archive, or a referral back to the policy committee.
“We can stick to our guns if we want, but if we reconsider, we have already set the stage for it,” Bishop wrote. “I don’t like it, but I think we have to look at damage control, (sic) We have a well intentioned board member who will make his view public if we stay the course, and if we don’t have unanimity on the board in that instance we’re dead.”