Traverse City Record-Eagle


May 12, 2009

Officials dig into free meals at meetings

TRAVERSE CITY -- A seat on a local public body can be a smorgasbord, of sorts. And area officials are digging in.

There's free pizza and salad for members of the regional bus service, and boxed meals for the school board. Officials who oversee a Grand Traverse County nursing home nosh on a continental breakfast, while lunch or dinner comprise the menu for the regional council of governments.

And no one does dining like members of the local community college board: They're treated to a full-course meal with dessert, catered by culinary arts students or a restaurant management firm that contracts with NMC.

All courtesy of local taxpayers. But one local official said there's a potentially costly catch for the bureaucratic buffet crowd: The same free lunch offered to government types also must be shared with the public.

"Anything you make available to the board you have to make available to the general public," said Grand Traverse County Administrator Dennis Aloia during a recent county board meeting. "That's why the coffee is available for everyone" at board meetings.

Aloia cited Michigan Department of Treasury guidelines that state expending money on food must be for a "public purpose," not private use.

That's why county officials go hungry at their board meetings. Coffee and a drink from the water fountain are the lone forms of sustenance at most county meetings, and the same holds true at most township and city meetings, said county Commissioner Beth Friend.

The real bounty is to be had at meetings for schools and independent public agencies.

Few can compare with the fare offered by Northwestern Michigan College, where elected board members meet just to eat, in a special session prior to regular meetings. Individual NMC board members have been known to share their feast if someone else shows up, but NMC policy generally limits the fine dining to members of the college board.

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