Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 15, 2013

Editorial: Televised meetings necessary step for NMC

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — The year 2013 is shaping up as one big, throbbing headache for Northwestern Michigan College's elected officials.

NMC's Board of Trustees stumbled and bumbled through the year's first nine months, embarrassing themselves with a series of poorly conceived decisions that prompted public scrutiny and negative reaction.

Board members deserved bad ink and community blow-back for hatching a restrictive campus "expression policy" that a lawyer subsequently called "blatantly unconstitutional," an effort apparently designed to quell the voices of audacious sorts who believe free speech and public places are a hand-in-hand concept.Trustees richly deserved a landslide ballot box backlash for masterminding a would-be tax hike by way of an unnecessary, costly, and stealth-based special election.

Finally, they deserved the widespread eye-rolling public response to their late-to-the-party chatter over whether to embrace electronic recording of their board meetings.

Yes, it's been a bad stretch for the NMC board, but the board's foibles might be a good omen for local taxpayers and open government proponents. That's because it's clear for all to see that change is long overdue on the NMC board, an elected body too heavily weighted with good ol' boy types too comfortable with behind-the-scenes wheeling and dealing, but not so much so with open, transparent government.

It's unacceptable that in 2013, decades after the advent of such technology, the elected officials who lead NMC's multi-million dollar operation refuse to televise, videotape or even audio record their meetings.

Mere oversight? Not a chance. It's by choice and it's driven by strategy and plausible deniability.

To date, if taxpayers and others don't attend NMC meetings, they're out of luck if they want an exact record of board members' comments and decisions. And NMC's leaders are oh-so-aware of that fact. If no one's able to review their actions through the magic of recorded and broadcast electronic imagery, well, who's to say who said and did what?

Last month, in the aftermath of voters' overwhelming defeat of NMC's tax hike pitch, trustee Cheryl Gore Follette suggested the board consider adopting some form of electronic recording of their meetings.

She doesn't appear keen on televised meetings, though, and fellow trustee Kennard Weaver flat-out opposes the recording idea.

“If everybody knows every word is being recorded, they’ll be reluctant to open their mouth, and you need people to think out loud," Weaver said. "And you don’t do that if you’re being tracked every second.”

Here's some thinking out loud, Mr. Weaver: Public office might not be a good fit for you.

Nearly every big-dollar public agency in Grand Traverse County - and a number of smaller entities, too - televises their meetings. Exceptions are limited to NMC and the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, and both could stand a big dose of transparency.

Grand Traverse County long fended off the televised meetings movement, and county commissioners engaged in much buffoonery before they grudgingly joined the 20th century several years after the calendar flipped to a new millennia. Today? County officials tout televised meetings as a great way to engage residents and taxpayers and demystify public decision-making.

NMC trustee Bill Myers, for one, suggests the community college could benefit from televised meetings.

“It just gives the opportunity to the public to participate more without physically coming to a meeting if there’s a way to do it,” he said.

He's right, refreshingly so for a board so generally out of touch with the whole government accountability notion.

NMC - which, by the way, has its own cable channel - has many good things going on, including a generally supportive community, strong resources and programming, and little in the way of close-proximity competition. But board members' regressive approach to transparency badly serves the college and the Grand Traverse region.

NMC immediately should craft a plan to televise or tape for television its board of trustee meetings, including all sub-committee, ad hoc, etc., meetings.

We encourage any trustees who consider televised meetings too intrusive to lodge a protest, preferably with their letter of resignation.