Former Grand Rapids city attorney questions secret meetings

Meetings of city officials may violate Michigan Open Meetings Act

Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids city officials enter a closed meeting.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Grand Rapids’ former city attorney is questioning secret meetings held regularly by city commissioners.

Catherine Mish, who served eight years as city attorney, is now running for a seat on the City Commission. If elected, she said, she would refuse to attend the meetings, which are held every other Tuesday at City Hall.

“If the Grand Rapids City Commission, in an open meeting by majority vote, waives attorney-client privilege and allows me to speak to you about this issue, I’d be more than happy to tell you everything I know about what really happens behind closed doors in Grand Rapids City Hall,” Mish told Target 8.

The meetings are called “three-on-ones,” or “ward briefings” — usually the mayor and two city commissioners at a time, along with the city manager and other city staff. They discuss big issues — from roads to panhandling to backyard chickens — weeks or sometimes months before going public.

While the meetings are a commissioner short of a quorum, an attorney for the Michigan Press Association said that doesn’t make them legal. She pointed to a 1988 state Court of Appeals ruling that found similar so-called “mini-meetings” held by the Wyoming City Council violated the state’s Open Meetings Act.

City Manager Greg Sundstrom has twice turned away Target 8 from the secret meetings.

He refused to sit down for an interview, but said he started holding the meetings nearly a decade ago. He said they are more efficient and allow city commissioners to ask questions without worrying what the public might think.

ARE THE MEETINGS LEGAL?

Sundstrom said the city’s attorneys have never given him advice against the meetings.

“I wish I could respond to that, but the city has me handcuffed by the attorney-client privilege,” Mish, the former city attorney, said.

Mish resigned from her position as city attorney in April 2016 to go into private practice.

Catherine Mish
Catherine Mish, who used to be the city attorney for Grand Rapids.

She questions what, if anything, city commissioners recently discussed privately about a proposal for 16-story buildings on the West Side.

“I’d love to know, as a West Sider, how many times was that proposed ordinance talked about in secret meetings?” Mish said. “Was the developer there? Who was there? What was discussed? Has the decision already been made? Is it already in the can? I’ve love to know as a resident of the West Side.”

Sundstrom said Mish attended the meetings when she was city attorney but never advised against them.

Current City Attorney Anita Hitchcock said she believes the meetings are legal.

The city denied Target 8’s request through the Freedom of Information Act for any legal advice it has received about the meetings, citing attorney-client privilege.

The city manager said the private meetings don’t violate the Open Meetings Act because they never have a quorum, don’t vote and don’t deliberate. It takes four voting members for a quorum.

“We do not discuss anything, make decisions here in any way,” he said.

But the state Court of Appeals has ruled that deliberations include discussions, and former city commissioners told Target 8 there were “open” discussions.

Michigan Press Association attorney Robin Luce-Herrmann said it’s important for voters to know how commissioners reached decisions on important issues.

FORMER CITY COMMISSIONERS: MEETINGS WERE HELPFUL

Former Grand Rapids city commissioners said the meetings with city staff members, like the police chief or fire officials, helped them through important issues. Walt Gutowski, who served on the commission until 2015, said they never argued the merits of proposals.

He was surprised to learn the former city attorney opposes the meetings.

“I don’t understand it because clearly as a city commissioner, we looked to her for that direction,” Gutowski said. “That would confuse me, but maybe she’s learned something new.”

Former City Commissioner James White, who served until the end of 2013, said officials never talked about how they would vote, but that meetings were a two-way street — city staffers providing information and city commissioners asking questions.

“The purpose of a briefing — it’s just a briefing — is to get information,” White said. “You can’t make a good decision without factual knowledge. No one knows everything. So you have a chance to ask questions, get information. You don’t deliberate, you don’t argue, you just educate yourself.”

Former City Commissioner Elias Lumpkins, who served until the end of 2015, recalls talking about roads, parks and backyard chickens in the meetings. He preferred the private meetings.

“If you had the media there videotaping and recording everything that you’re talking about, you don’t get the open discussion,” Lumpkins said.