This wasn’t Rose Mary Woods erasing 181/2 minutes of Oval Office audio tape that was believed to have captured a conversation between Richard Nixon and Chief of Staff H. R. Haldeman at the height of the Watergate investigation.
This wasn’t a police report so heavily redacted that the only words still visible are a few “ands” and maybe a “but.”
But it is public business and it does have to be done in public and no, the law is probably not open to interpretation.
On its first try, the Frankfort City Council muffed the process of hiring a new police chief by holding interviews with three of four finalists for the job behind closed doors. In a special session Tuesday, they conducted new interviews in public and hired Walter Wing, a sergeant with the Lake Odessa Police Department.
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act does allow public bodies to review employee applications in private, if applicants ask for confidentiality. But interviews by a public body — and yes, “public body” includes city committees — for employment or appointment to a public office must be held during open public meetings.
Robin Luce Herrmann, a state media lawyer and general counsel to the Michigan Press Association, said the closed-session interviews violated the law, which is intended to give the public a chance to ask candidates questions and review their credentials.
As OMA violations go, this isn’t particularly big stuff, though it’s at least ironic city officials apparently broke a law while searching for a police chief. But it’s important that citizens be given a chance to sit in, eyeball the applicants and watch how their council representatives conduct business.
This is particularly important in a case like this, when a city of about 1,300 souls is naming a police chief, someone who will have a lot of influence on small-town life. Frankfort knows what it’s like to have a police officer — the name Tim Cavric comes to mind — who a lot of people think is overly zealous; the city doesn’t want to go through that again.
The council also sent through at least one candidate who didn’t meet its own minimum requirements, a self-inflicted blow to its credibility. The job posting lists a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, public administration or a related field as a minimum requirement plus six years of professional experience.
One of the candidates didn’t have a degree but reportedly intends to “pursue one in the future.” That’s fine. When he gets his degree, he could certainly apply again.
Rules exist for a reason — in this case to ensure a truly public process and assure residents that the city is getting qualified applicants for a very key job.
It’s the council’s job to get it right.