Grand Rapids ends secret meetings exposed by Target 8

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids City Commission will no longer hold secret meetings in response to a Target 8 investigation that questioned their legality, the city manager said.

“I think by you raising the question, it came in front of the City Commission,” City Manager Greg Sundstrom told Target 8. “They asked themselves the question and decided to change their routine.”

It was the city manager who earlier this year kicked Target 8 investigators out of one of the so-called “three-on-one” meetings on the sixth floor of Grand Rapids City Hall.

Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids city officials enter a closed meeting.

Target 8 revealed that commissioners met in a series of back-to-back subquorums — just less than a quorum — every other Tuesday to discuss important issues like roads, public safety and backyard chickens long before those issues became public.

The state Court of Appeals ruled in 1988 that similar meetings in the city of Wyoming violated the Open Meetings Act.

>>PDF: Citizen’s guide to the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act

An attorney for the Michigan Press Association, which represents news organizations, called the meetings illegal.

“Occasionally, and I’m not saying that’s the case here, but occasionally it’s done deliberately to avoid a lot of constituent pushback and to get things through more quickly,” MPA attorney Robin Luce-Herrmann told Target 8 earlier this week.

Sundstrom, who is retiring in January, said he has found other ways to inform commissioners.

“There was never a desire to somehow be less than transparent. There was just always a desire to make sure the commission fully vetted issues and made good decisions,” Sundstrom said.

Former commissioners had told Target 8 the secret meetings allowed them to discuss issues openly without public scrutiny.

“The City Commission is very interested in having their debate in public,” Sundstrom said.

In some cases, Sundstrom said commissioners are now being briefed in regular commission meetings, then voting on it at a later meeting, all in public.

“I think the City Commission wishes to go to a mode where they will more frequently have work sessions, and those will be public sessions,” he said.

The Michigan Press Association attorney applauded the change, saying it will lead to more open government.

“Taxpayers are entitled to know how government acts and why government acts in a certain way,” Luce-Herrmann said. “It’s part of the package with being a public official.”