TRAVERSE CITY — Elected officials at Northwestern Michigan College will discuss taping their board meetings, a potential about-face for leaders of a multi-million dollar public institution who’ve shunned such technology and rely on notes and memories to record their business.
NMC is in the minority among major public agencies in Grand Traverse County when it comes to recording and televising board meetings. Grand Traverse County, Traverse City Area Public Schools, Traverse City government, and several local townships record and televise meetings conducted by their various boards and commissions.
NMC also doesn’t use electronic audio recording to log action taken by its Board of Trustees.
That may change.
NMC board member Cheryl Gore Follette said she asked to put the question of recording meetings on the board’s Monday study session agenda. That meeting is scheduled for 8:30 a.m. at the Oleson Center on NMC’s main campus.
“For my purpose, having the meeting recorded would be helpful for everyone,” Gore Follette said. “.. . (T)here may have been occasions when I’ve said something, and I don’t remember exactly what it was. It would be helpful for me to hear what I said.”
No electronic record
NMC’s aversion to electronic recording at its board meetings came to light in July in a Record-Eagle story about a pending August special election for a .4-mill request.
NMC board members in May decided to hold the vote in August, despite an estimated $68,000 in extra costs for a special election. One reason stated by board members was to ensure the higher tax rate, if approved, could be placed on December property tax bills. NMC President Tim Nelson learned before that decision that a free November vote would have had the same effect.
Nelson didn’t attend a May study session at which he thought the matter had been discussed. Other school officials said they didn’t recall that the November election possibility was discussed at that meeting. There was no audio or videotape to check and nothing was indicated in board meeting minutes.
Nelson contacted board members in July and learned they didn’t know that November would work for an election.
Electronic recording at NMC meetings isn’t a new issue. Previous NMC boards discussed the question a number of times, but it’s never proceeded to the policy committee, Nelson said. He declined to discuss his personal views, and said he’ll follow the board’s lead.
NMC Board Trustee Kennard Weaver said he opposes the recording idea.
“I agree with the judges who keep cameras out of the courtroom,” he said. “If you tell me you act the same with or without the camera on you, I’m not going to believe you. I think it can stifle full discussion.”
Weaver said he also would object to audio recordings.
“The same thing. If everybody knows every word is being recorded, they’ll be reluctant to open their mouth, and you need people to think out loud. And you don’t do that if you’re being tracked every second,” he said.
But NMC Board Trustee Bill Myers believes it would enhance NMC’s visibility and transparency.
“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.
Follette prefers audio tape to video tape because she’s concerned some citizens might use a taped meeting as a “forum.”
“I have seen in other venues where it seems people become persistent attendees at meetings; it feels as if it’s a purpose for being on TV,” she said. “That’s my perception, but I don’t know if it’s valid.”
Maxbauer forced change at county
Grand Traverse County Commissioner Christine Maxbauer pioneered the move to videotape and televise county board meetings. She personally carried a video camera into county board and committee meetings beginning in August 2006 and long after getting elected in November.
The controversy came to a head when she tried to tape a public strategic planning meeting in August 2007.
“They threatened to stop the meeting,” Maxbauer said. “They told me, ‘ If you’re going to videotape this, you’re going to be the only one you’re videotaping because we’re leaving.’”
Maxbauer said she “caved” and didn’t turn on the video camera. She later sued, but the issue never reached the courtroom. County board members began taping and televising meetings in early 2008 on UpNorth TV, channels 99 and 994.
Maxbauer described the two-year period as a “living hell,” when she was shunned before, after and during meetings. Former commissioners shouted at her publicly and privately, she said.
“No one has any idea of what I went through to tape those meetings,” she said. “I can still almost come to tears when I talk about it.”
But Maxbauer said she persisted because she believes in public transparency.
“How can you hold people accountable when there’s no record?” she said. “How can you do that? You can’t.”
She questions the value of audio tape alone.
“How is that transmitted to the public? Who is going to watch it or listen to it, not easily anyway. Why? Why bother?” she said.
Another concern: an audio tape doesn’t convey who is speaking.
“Unless every time somebody speaks, they say, ‘I’m commissioner so and so,’ or ‘I’m Joe Q from the public,’ how would you know?”
Grand Traverse County Commissioner Herb Lemcool said he originally opposed videotaping meetings because he didn’t know how it would be accepted, as well as the cost. He’s now a big supporter because television provides unprecedented access to meetings.
“I cannot go anywhere without people saying I’m watching the meetings on TV, and learning so much more about how county government works,” Lemcool said.”It’s a fabulous tool to keep people in the loop and knowing what’s going on in our community.”
He said the videotape doesn’t attract folks seeking the TV limelight, nor does it affect board discussions.
“We have an open dialogue, and it’s really healthy,” he said.
UpNorth Media, a community access TV station, charges $20 an hour to tape a governmental meeting and televises it at least three times. Viewers can also go the UpNorth Media website and watch the meeting online.
For NMC, the taping cost would be negligible, said Joe VanderMeulen, who oversees UpNorth Media Center.
NMC is in a unique position because it has its own cable channel and once served as the home base of community access television.
“They have all they need to do it,” VanderMeulen said. “They have the equipment, trained personnel, they have their own (cable) TV station. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t do it.”
Who videotapes meetings? Recorded meetings are nothing new for the City of Traverse City, which began videotaping its city commission meetings in 1986. Here's a rundown of area governmental units that routinely cablecast their board and, in some cases, planning and committee meetings on UpNorth Media, channels 99 and 994. - City of Traverse City - Traverse City Downtown Development Authority - Traverse City Light & Power - Elmwood Charter Township - East Bay Charter Township - Charter Township of Garfield - Grand Traverse County - Grand Traverse County Road Commission - Grand Traverse County Commission on Aging - Traverse City Area Public Schools (available on channel 98 and tcaps.net) - Long Lake Township (available at longlaketownship.com) With the exception of TCAPS and Long Lake, these meetings are cablecast on community access TV. A replay schedule is posted on the website www.upnorthmedia.org. Green Lake Township audio records meetings and offers copies to the public for a fee.