Secret meetings in GR: Big issues, public not allowed

Michigan Press Association lawyer questions whether meetings are legal under Michigan Open Meetings Act

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Weeks and sometimes months before Grand Rapids city commissioners cast public votes on important issues — from roads to panhandling to backyard chickens — they meet secretly to discuss them.

The public is left in the dark.

In fact, members of the public wouldn't be allowed into the meetings even if they knew about them.

A lawyer for the Michigan Press Association said she believes the meetings violate the state's Open Meetings Act. Even Grand Rapids' former city attorney is speaking out against them.

THREE IDENTICAL MEETINGS

Target 8 has tried twice to get into the secret meetings, held on the sixth floor of Grand Rapids City Hall, only to be turned away by City Manager Greg Sundstrom.

"This isn't a public meeting," he told Target 8 in March.

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. The three meetings are divided up by the city's three wards and their agendas are identical.

The meetings are one commissioner short of a quorum — the minimum number needed to officially do business — but the MPA attorney said that doesn't make them legal.

They are usually held every other Tuesday, the week between the regular full City Commission meetings that are open to the public.

Target 8 brought its findings to Robin Luce-Herrmann, an attorney at Butzel Long who represents news organizations across the state for the MPA. She said the courts have ruled against such "sub-quorums," finding they violate the Open Meetings Act when they involve deliberations.

"One of the basic tenets of our democracy is the ability to know how government is functioning," Luce-Herrmann said. "It affects our votes, one of our most cherished rights.

"The courts, I don't think, would support attempts like this to avoid the Open Meetings Act."

>>Inside woodtv.com: Former city attorney speaks out against meetings

BRIEFINGS MONTHS BEFORE ISSUES WENT PUBLIC

Target 8 obtained agendas from these meetings through the Freedom of Information Act.

Among the topics discussed for the first time in the meetings was government transparency. In November 2016, the City Commission passed and touted new ethics and conflict of interest policies. Mayor Rosalynn Bliss announced they were part of the city's commitment to transparency and access to information. What she didn't mention is that commitment to transparency was brought up a month earlier in one of the secret meetings.

Commissioners also talked secretly about a backyard chickens ordinance three times before it was introduced publicly in December 2014. They met secretly again before passing the ordinance in February 2015, then twice more before making it permanent last July.

They met privately four times about a panhandling ordinance before unveiling it to the public.

Then there's the proposed ordinance to limit the number of dogs and cats per household. Commissioners discussed it privately in October -- five months before it went public.

WHY THE MEETINGS MAY BE ILLEGAL

A tip led Target 8 to investigate the meetings, which city officials say have gone on for about 10 years.

Target 8 first asked in January to attend one of the secret meetings. That day, Grand Rapids Police Department Chief David Rahinsky spent his entire morning giving the same presentation three times to separate sets of city commissioners.

The city manager says the private meetings are legal and don't violate the state's Open Meetings Act because there's never a quorum and they don't deliberate. Four voting members are needed for a quorum.

"We do not discuss anything, make decisions here in any way," Sundstrom said.

But some former city commissioners say they did discuss issues.

"Everyone needs a safe space where they can openly discuss something of interest to their ward," former Commissioner Elias Lumpkins said.

And that, the Michigan Press Association lawyer said, is what violates the Open Meetings Act.

"Deliberations is very broadly construed by the courts," Luce-Herrmann said. "It's discussions, it's exchange of idea, things like that."

"If a consensus and disagreements and questions all take place behind closed doors, you don't really know what your public officials are thinking or how they're deciding policy, and you also don't know that they're doing their due diligence because you're not seeing it," she said.

Of more than 800 votes by the City Commission during open meetings last year, 99.3 percent were unanimous. Only six had any dissenting votes at all and just two failed.

"That to me is a red flag that there are deliberations going on outside of the public meetings," Luce-Herrmann said.

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

SIMILAR MEETINGS IN WYOMING WERE STRUCK DOWN

The MPA lawyer pointed to a court ruling in 1988 that found the city of Wyoming violated the Open Meetings Act with strikingly similar "mini-meetings." The state Court of Appeals ruled the Wyoming City Council was illegally getting around the Open Meetings Act by dividing itself into groups of less than a quorum to deliberate on public policy.

"Yeah, we were doing that," former Wyoming City Councilmember Carl Paganelli Sr. said.

Paganelli was on the Wyoming City Council when it held illegal meetings at a restaurant — they included the mayor, the city manager and two city commissioners at a time, just like Grand Rapids.

He said secret meetings leave people wondering what a city is hiding.

"It is the public's business," he said. "You people are taxpayers; you should have the right to know what our mayor and our City Commission is doing. I believe in that and I believe those meetings should be open."

FEW ANSWERS FROM MAYOR AND CITY MANAGER

Even the Michigan Municipal League — which lobbies for cities, including Grand Rapids — warns against what it calls "sub-quorums."

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalyn Bliss is president of the municipal league's board. She refused to comment, other than to say she often doesn't attend the meetings. However, the mayor attended at least one of the two meetings Target 8 attempted to get into earlier this year.

Bliss referred any questions to the city manager, Greg Sundstrom.

Target 8 tried again in March to get into one of Grand Rapids' secret meetings.

"I'm not going to be on camera with you doing this," Sundstrom told Target 8. "This is a backwards way of getting an interview."

The city manager said the city has never received legal advice against holding the meetings.

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