TRAVERSE CITY — Frankfort city officials may have violated open meetings laws when they interviewed candidates for police chief, a state media law attorney said.
A city personnel committee interviewed four candidates for the vacant top police department post late last week. Three of those interviews took place behind closed doors at the candidates’ request, said Frankfort Mayor Bob Johnson, a member of the personnel committee.
Attorney Robin Luce Herrmann, general counsel to the Michigan Press Association, said interviewing the candidates in closed session violated Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.
“The interviews have to be in public,” Luce Herrmann said. “And they can’t make decisions on those interviews without deliberating in public.”
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act requires public bodies to conduct nearly all business at open meetings, according to an OMA guide published by Michigan’s legislature.
Public bodies can review employee applications in private, if so requested by an applicant.
“However, all interviews by a public body for employment or appointment to a public office have to be conducted in an open meeting,” the act states.
City council member JoAnn Holwerda said she didn’t think city officials violated the act, but if they did commit a violation, it was unintentional.
“We were just going by what was past practice,” she said.
City attorney Joan Swartz McKay said some terms in the clause about conducting interviews are open to interpretation, including the term “public body.” McKay said she’s researching the issue and crafting an interpretation of OMA for the city council.
“It will be up to the city council to determine where to go from there,” she said.
Johnson said on Oct. 11 the personnel committee would select a candidate to recommend to the full city council during a council meeting today. He would not release the names of the candidates.
“We have not made a decision yet,” he said. “Three of those gentleman asked to be (interviewed) in closed session, so I’m not going to release them.”
Frankfort officials on Monday provided copies of the candidates’ resumes in response to a public records request.
Johnson could not be reached for additional comment.
The four candidates interviewed on Friday were Robert Arciniega, a former Michigan State Police trooper; Robert Lozowski, Frankfort’s interim police chief; Thomas Kohl, a lieutenant at the Shelby Township Police Department investigations bureau; and Walter Wing, a sergeant with the Lake Odessa Police Department.
City council member Richard Haan said he has concerns about the search process and some of the candidates’ qualifications.
The city’s job posting for the police chief position lists a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, public administration or a related field as a minimum requirement “supplemented by six years of professional experience in the field or the equivalent combination of education, training and experience.”
Not all of the final four candidates meet the bachelor’s degree requirement, Haan said.
“The ones who don’t meet the requirements, why would you even bring them forward (for interviews)?” Haan said.
Johnson said all four of the candidates are “highly qualified” for the police chief position.
Lozowski doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree, but he interpreted the minimum qualifications to allow for candidates who intend to pursue one in the future. Lozowski also pointed out he has far more experience as a police officer than the minimum six years required.
“I have almost double that,” he said.
Frankfort has been without a police chief since longtime Chief Keith Redder retired in August.
Record-Eagle staff writer Matt Troutman contributed to this report.