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.
That's how they like it.
"We have not been able to turn up anything in state law or policies that says we cannot provide meals for trustees, or that we have to provide food for anyone who attends a meeting," said college spokesman Paul Heaton.
NMC trustees are next scheduled to don the feed bag on May 18 at 5:30 p.m. at the Oleson Center on the main campus. The May 18 menu wasn't available on Monday, but in April trustees dined on beef Wellington, a filet of beef baked in a pastry.
"Beef Wellington? Sheesh, that will go over well with their tuition increases," said county Commissioner Larry Inman.
NMC trustees may not be willing to break bread with the public, but the Bay Area Transportation Authority expects visitors to load up a plate with pizza and salad.
"Everybody just gets up and eats. I've never seen that before," said county Commissioner Christine Maxbauer.
BATA served pizza at its noon meeting when Janet Wolf joined the board 10 years ago. She convinced agency officials to add salad.
Providing lunch for the volunteer BATA board probably costs less than $700 a year, Wolf said. When BATA checked on the legality of partaking in publicly paid pizza, they were told free for some means free for all.
"Our policy is, if you feed yourself, you feed everybody in the room," Wolf said. "The cost is (minimal), it doesn't amount to anything, and some of those people who are in the audience can use a helping hand."
BATA's next pizza lunch is scheduled for noon on May 27 at the Traverse Area District Library.
Breakfast is served at meetings of the Grand Traverse County Department of Human Services Board at the Grand Traverse Pavilions.
Maxbauer called it a "fabulous" continental breakfast of pastry, fresh fruit, juice and coffee.
County Commissioner Ross Richardson, who currently attends the meeting, disagreed.
"The way (Maxbauer) talked I was expecting an omelette station," Richardson said. "My first meeting we had scones, and they were really good, but lately all we've been getting are doughnut holes. Must be a benefit of the bad economy."
Scones or doughnut holes, the board's next meeting is May 29 at 9 a.m.
A few other agencies provide food on a hit-or-miss basis, but two organizations are consistent food purveyors.
Traverse City Area Public Schools, for instance, did away with chafing dishes and full course meals for the board of education, but visitors can still get a snack twice a month, ranging from munchies to a boxed lunch with bottled water. The board meets next on May 18 at 6 p.m. at the school administration building.
And the Northwest Michigan Council of Governments caters all its board meetings and meetings for its 10-county workforce development board. NMCOG's board next meets June 26 at 9:30 a.m. and provides lunch, while the workforce board meets June 8 at 5:30 p.m. and serves a buffet dinner.
Meetings generally are held at the Traverse City Michigan Works Center on Garfield Avenue.