Category Archives: Open Meetings Act

If you are interested in going to public meetings, you must be interested in advance

The Michigan Open Meetings Act requires 18 hours advance notice of special meetings, and even less time (though I am not clear how much less time) for special meetings of committees. Thus, if you were not on a mailing list (with a relatively small number of people on the list), you did not receive notice directly of this meeting which is needed to resolve the City of Ann Arbor and the Ann Arbor Downtown Development Authority's mutual disagreements over the city budget.

I follow this primarily through the exhaustively detailed reporting of my current coworking group member Dave Askins at the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the timely reporting of my former coworker Ryan Stanton at AnnArbor.com, and the new news beat that my former coworker James Dickson is carving out at the Ann Arbor Journal, and the editorial direction that home town friend John Hilton directs at the monthly Ann Arbor Observer.

From time to time, the autonomous collective of Damn Arbor pitches in, with Ben Connor Barrie most likely to be the townie and grad student voice of civic news gathering. That weblog is in the tradition of previous efforts, notably Rob Goodspeed's Goodspeed Update, the autonomous collective and voice of Julie Weatherbee at Arbor Update, and a long-anonymous Julia Lipman at Ann Arbor is Overrated

This is all shorthand to say that I hope you are going to this meeting, if you care about it, and that if you care enough about it to want to know that it exists without me telling you about it you have to ask to be informed in advance.

May 2011 Mutually Beneficial Committee Meeting Announcement filed with City Clerk's office

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Ypsilanti, Michigan to adopt more stringent Open Meetings Act rules

YPSILANTI – A very straightforward yet revolutionary approach to open meetings in Ypsilanti says that every subcommittee of City Council must abide by the Michigan Open Meetings Act – including providing advance notice of meetings – just in case enough council members show up to form a quorum.

Ypsilanti Citizen story:

The OMA resolution, which was added to council’s agenda at 5 p.m. on
Oct. 20, was discussed in relation to the approval of the Ypsilanti
Downtown Development Authority bylaws – a separate agenda item at the
meeting.

Murdock said the resolution is simply about “having meetings where decisions are made open to the public.”

Although
he had previous discussions with City Manager Ed Koryzno during
Council’s goal-setting sessions in January, Murdock moved forward with
the resolution Oct. 20, when the DDA violated the Open Meetings Act
earlier in the month by having a quorum, or more than seven members of
the board, participate at a planning committee meeting.

the Advance Ypsilanti PAC notes that the resolution snuck in at the last possible minute

Sadly, the process by which this open meetings resolution
was enacted is exactly the opposite of an open process. This is not
just ironic, but suspect.

For instance, consider that this resolution was sent to the city
clerk and posted to the council packets at 4:16 p.m. the day of the
city council meeting, less than 3 hours before
council was to convene. AY PAC asks ‘why’? There was no emergency, no
timeline that needed to be met on this issue. There was no pressing
need that forced this to be addressed and resolved THAT NIGHT.

If anyone can inform AY PAC as to why this was so urgent that it
needed to be addressed in a timeline that included NO opportunity for
public comment and little reflection by council, we welcome the
information.

The back story is the Ypsi DDA meeting in October 2008 which was held in closed session, in evident violation of the Open Meetings Act.  From YpsiNews (Steve Pierce) at the time:

(October 7, 2008) During a meeting of the Ypsilanti Downtown Development, the DDA board violated not one, but two sections of the Open Meetings Act.

The Director of the Ypsilanti DDA, Brian Vosburg, called an
emergency closed session meeting to be held on Friday, October 3, 2008
at 12 noon. The purpose of the meeting was to meet with DDA attorney
Tammie Tischler.

The DDA Director said in the meeting notice the “Closed Session (is)
to consider material exempt from discussion or disclosure by state or
federal statute – (Open Meetings Act 15.268, Section 8(h))”

However, neither the DDA Director nor the DDA attorney would cite
which state or federal statute exempts the DDA from the Open Meetings
Act. Failing to publicly state the reason for a closed session is a
violation of the Open Meetings Act.

On the use of email among Ann Arbor City Council members during public meetings

I continue to be utterly baffled by the way politics works in this town.

The latest comes from documents obtained by FOIA of emails sent among members of city council during the council public meetings.  These messages provide council members with a sub rosa back channel to discuss items on the public agenda and evidently to tease (or ridicule) members of council that they don't agree with.

UPDATE: Two Ann Arbor News stories by Judy McGovern:

Some question appropriateness of mocking e-mail banter during Ann Arbor City Council meetings

Sent from city e-mail accounts, the messages were released by the city
in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by the Great Lakes
Environmental Law Center.

The Detroit-based law center was seeking communication about the
city's planned underground parking structure on Fifth Avenue. What it
got, in addition, were a series of live e-mail exchanges among council
members during three meetings in February and March.

Some
of the messages discuss business on the council's agenda – such as
whether a vote will be postponed – but more often they spoofed the
proceedings.

Not all Ann Arbor City Council meeting e-mails were horseplay

In addition to quietly poking fun at individuals and groups before
them, some Ann Arbor City Council members apparently used their city
e-mail accounts during meetings to discreetly discuss city business.

I don't know who all has sent in FOIA requests yet, or what will be printed – the best guess I have at this point is that something will show up in the Sunday paper.  I've seen copies of what is evidently a very selectively edited set of messages from one meeting, in which one member of council sends email to most but not all members of council, awarding a "golden vomit award" to a council member not included on the email.  Is that teasing, ridicule, or an effort to influence future voting?  Hard to say.

The Michigan Open Meetings Act is not clear on the status of email communications as meetings.  An article in the Citizen Media Law Project site says

Governmental bodies may hold meetings by by written, telephonic,
electronic, wireless, or other virtual means. However, an electronic
meeting is still subject to the notice requirements and must be held at
a designated place and time. While the law is not certain on this
point, it appears that email communications between members of a
governmental body may constitute a meeting if they involve deliberation
on public business.

There's Open Meetings Act litigation underway in Texas, where the questions of balancing First Amendment rights to speech threaten to change laws across the country.  I don't understand all the repercussions, but here's the story from the Austin American-Statesman paper:

It started as a minor prosecution of two Alpine City Council members
accused of discussing city business in private e-mails and not, as
Texas law requires, in a public forum.

Now, with a recent U.S. appeals court ruling, the 2004 incident is
mushrooming into a national issue — bringing denunciations from
open-government advocates who fear the decision will cripple laws that
ban elected officials from conducting public business behind closed
doors.

The controversy surrounds a 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling
that the Texas Open Meetings Act compromised the Alpine council
members' free speech rights and may have to be overturned or rewritten.

The Big Bend Sentinel, the local paper for Alpine, TX, notes that this case may reach the Supreme Court based on the intervention of attorney generals from multiple states.

ALPINE – The recent federal appeals court ruling
in an Alpine Texas Open Meetings Act case that a public official’s
right to free speech is the same as a private citizens may eventually
find its way to the Supreme Court of the United States, an attorney in
the matter said this week.

“Nineteen states have weighed in saying it (the ruling) could change
their open meetings laws,” Alpine attorney Rod Ponton said. “That makes
it a national issue that would need to be decided by the Supreme Court.”

On April 24, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of
Appeals, sitting in New Orleans, Louisiana, reversed a ruling by U.S.
District Judge Rob Junell, who initially heard the civil lawsuit
brought by former Alpine City Council members Dr. Avinash Rangra and
Anna Monclova.

As I noted I expect more on this issue in the Sunday June 7 2009 news.