Traverse City Record-Eagle

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March 2, 2014

Editorial: Settling public comment suit hardly a conversion

The headline was promising: “Grand Traverse County settles open meetings lawsuit.” The rest of the story, however, brought on that all-too-familiar exasperation with the powers that be.

Yes, the county did settle with Traverse City resident Ann Laurence, who sued after board Chair Herb Lemcool cut short public comments at a heavily attended budget meeting in November.

And yes, as part of the settlement the county promised to make much-needed changes in its public comment rules.

But don’t for a moment think the settlement indicates a change of heart on the part of the county board or some epiphany concerning the state’s Open Meetings Act, which has only been around for 38 years now.

Attorney Philip Ellison, who represented Lawrence, said she sought the public comment rule changes when she initially filed the lawsuit, but the county said “no.”

“The original civil counsel through their prosecutor’s office, they would not agree to that before, but after their insurance counsel came on board, apparently he thought it was a good idea,” Ellison said.

So when county officials were left to their own devices, they said “no,” but when the insurance company — the people who pay up if the county loses a suit like this one — got involved, they folded. The adults in the room spoke and the county listened.

So if there is a victory for citizens here it’s strictly a technical knockout. Being forced to change the public comment rules doesn’t mean the county’s elected officials have any more respect for their constituents’ right to speak than they did before the suit was filed. Which means not much.

Elected-official-hubris is not an uncommon malady, though most public bodies locally do seem to understand the basics — this is public business they’re transacting with public dollars, they have to do business in the open, and the citizenry has the right to not only watch but comment.

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