In discussing whether Northwestern Michigan College should electronically record or broadcast its board meetings, trustee and policy committee member Susan Sheldon said last week that while she personally favors creating a permanent record, “I was just waiting to hear if there’s a need. Who’s asking for it?”
The real question is why is that even a question?
Anyone who wonders why a publicly elected body that directs a college with an enrollment of about 5,000 students and revenues of nearly $43 million should keep a permanent, public record of its decisions doesn’t get the concept.
NMC is a public institution financially supported by every Grand Traverse County resident who pays property taxes and anyone who pays tuition. Board members are elected officials answerable to voters. Policy discussions and decisions must be done in meetings open — and as easily accessible as possible — to the public.
But the college has too frequently done its business as far from the public eye as possible. Board meetings are public, but there is no permanent record beyond bare-bones written minutes. Last year there was confusion over whether the board was told that putting off a millage election until November would allow the tax to appear on the winter tax rolls. Instead, the college opted to spend $68,000 to hold a special election.
Every year the excuses get more and more lame.
Cost has been the No. 1 bugaboo. Every proposal to videotape or televise meetings has been met with grave concerns about costs — but no details.
For good reason. Reproducing the Traverse City Area Public Schools’ excellent system would run $35,000 a year; live broadcasts would be $47,000 to $55,000; and UpNorth Media would do the job for a paltry $7,200.
But NMC already has its own cable channel, staff and video equipment, which makes the cost argument moot.
Another favorite bogeyman has been the possibility of taxpayers acting badly on camera, a presumption that has proved to be an urban myth. Traverse City has been televising its meetings since 1986; its regular commentators aren’t a problem.
Trustee Cheryl Gore Follette said she would shy away from videotape because some citizens might use meetings as a “forum.” Well, gosh, we wouldn’t want a public meeting of a public body to become a public forum, would we? That’s absurd.
This should be a non-issue. All the arguments the board has used over the years to not allow the public maximum access are little more than a dodge. Board members don’t want the public to easily watch them do business. For whatever their reasons.
That can’t be their call. The public has a right to know, and to watch. And even to comment.