Maybe it was a miracle. Or ESP. More likely it was a cynical violation of the state’s Open Meetings Act and a fraud upon the public.
On Jan. 21, a three-member Northwestern Michigan College Board of Trustees committee unanimously rejected a proposal to videotape, televise, or otherwise keep an electronic record of board meetings, agreeing with committee member and board Chair Doug Bishop, who said, “I don’t see a need for it.”
Fast forward to Jan. 27, when — with no public meetings in between — the board made a rather remarkable 180-degree turn, sort of. They unanimously voted to request a new policy to require video recordings of meetings and make those recordings available online — though the meetings wouldn’t be televised, because as Trustee Bill Myers put it, “it’s during the dinner hour” and he didn’t know how many people would tune in.
But the board curiously went from nothing on Jan. 21 to something-ish on Jan. 27, all with essentially zero discussion.
In fact, Bishop said at the Jan. 27 meeting that Trustee Bob Brick, who wasn’t present, also was in favor. How Bishop knew that Brick gave thumbs-up to a new policy that flew in the face of the Jan. 21 committee stance is yet another mystery.
Unless, of course, board members discussed the issue by e-mail, telephone, or some other nonpublic means well outside the public eye. So-called “round-robin” policy discussions, however they occur, are illegal in Michigan. The Record-Eagle subsequently filed state Freedom of Information Act requests for e-mails between trustees, administrators and NMC President Tim Nelson that addressed a meeting recordings policy. Those e-mails are public record and ought to tell quite a tale.
The Jan. 27 vote completely reversed the policy committee’s recommendation. At the time, trustees said the public hadn’t expressed any interest in the issue. After the vote to adopt the policy, Bishop said he received several calls, both pro and con. He didn’t elaborate, but one can’t help but wonder who’s “con” to government transparency and accountability.
Myers’ motion at the Jan. 27 board meeting instructed the policy committee to develop a new policy that implements video recording and an online archival system that can be deployed no later than the board’s April 28 meeting.
The motion oddly prompted little discussion, other than the timeline and an informal agreement to keep video recordings online for two years. Bishop said Brick also agreed with that part of the plan.
The entire episode defies logic. For some reason the board doggedly resists televising its meetings, despite the fact that most other governments in the Grand Traverse area televise their meetings and have done so for years.
Grand Traverse County government was among the last anti-television holdouts, but now, board Chairman Herb Lemcool said people approach him on the street to say they watch televised county board meetings and appreciate the opportunity to watch their local government in action.
NMC’s resistance has never made much sense. The college even has a video studio and equipment to tape meetings. UpNorth Media offered to air the meetings on its public access channel for as little as $7,500 annually. Bishop has said cost isn’t an issue.
This entire episode reeks of behind-the-scenes manipulation and a further example of the board’s apparent contempt for public input and public opinion. In part because there was no record of meetings beyond bare-bones hand-written minutes, the board last year couldn’t remember if members knew that a millage request could still make the winter tax bill if the college had waited until November to take it to voters - for free. Instead, the board opted for an August special election, which cost taxpayers $80,000. The millage issue lost badly.
The purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to ensure that public business is done in public, where voters and taxpayers can hear what their elected officials say and watch what they do. It is an essential part of a representative system, and subverting the act by private phone calls or e-mails or midnight meetings in someone’s kitchen is against the law. Period.
NMC officials owe the public the respect of doing their business in the public eye. NMC trustees are elected officials who must answer to those who elected them.
It’s all about accountability. It’s time there was some.