TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County’s governing board is under fire for limiting public comment at a contentious budget meeting attended by scores of citizens.
A lawsuit filed in 13th Circuit Court by Ann Laurence, of Traverse City, accuses the Grand Traverse County Commission of violating Michigan’s Open Meetings Act when commission Chair Herb Lemcool limited public comment about proposed cuts to the county’s 2014 budget during a special meeting last month.
“I’m a strong advocate for transparency in government and open meetings, and I was pretty offended by Chairman Lemcool,” Laurence said.
Lemcool said he does not believe there’s “any reason” for the allegations in Laurence’s complaint.
“I felt it was more important for the commissioners to debate the issue,” he said of the decision to limit public comment. “If I’d allowed everybody in the room to have public comment, we would not have had time to do so.”
The Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to establish rules for public comment during meetings.
The commission’s rules of order state “any person shall be permitted to address” an open meeting of the board, and the commission chair is responsible for controlling the amount of time each person can speak, “which shall not exceed three minutes.”
Roughly 150 people attended the budget meeting in question on Nov. 14 after county officials floated various proposals for closing a sizable gap in the 2014 budget, including cutting sheriff’s road patrol deputies, eliminating parks and recreation department administrators and closing the county’s indoor swimming pool, according to court documents.
Lemcool, at the start of the meeting, said he would limit an opening public comment session to 15 minutes. He also asked each speaker to limit their comments to one minute.
About 10 people spoke during the first public comment session, which actually lasted for about 25 minutes. Several other individuals spoke during a second comment portion at the end of the nearly four-hour long meeting, which commission members said was not limited in any way. The board did not take any formal action on the proposed cuts during the meeting.
The lawsuit alleges several people who wanted to address the county board were not able to do so.
“When public bodies and politicians are making very big decisions that affect a huge part of the operations of a local government, people have a right to go up and have their voices heard,” said Philip Ellison, Laurence’s Hemlock-based attorney.
Jennifer Dukarski, an attorney with the Michigan Press Association, said the suit against the county board likely faces some “uphill challenges.”
“The commission is allowed to limit the discussion as long as they allow an opportunity for people to speak,” she said. “In this case it sounds like there was time left at the end of the meeting for anyone who wanted to speak. That said, it’s a very challenging situation.”
County attorney Bob Cooney had not reviewed the complaint as of Monday morning and declined comment on the specific allegations.
County Administrator Dave Benda said members of the public are given “a lot” of chances to address the county board. He said the commission has scheduled a public budget hearing for 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Governmental Center.
“If anybody feels like they missed it, then they’ve still got another opportunity to speak,” Benda said.
Laurence’s complaint seeks a declaration that the county board violated the Open Meetings Act, an order to the board not to violate the act in the future, and payment of court costs and attorney fees.
Laurence is married to Traverse City commissioner and former county Commissioner Ross Richardson. She said her husband has nothing to do with the lawsuit.