Village Council panel goes silent, claims OMA exemption

Graham Jaehnig/Daily Mining Gazette Alpena-based attorney Matt Wodja, spoke to the Calumet Village Council during a special meeting Thursday. The purpose of the meeting was discuss the functions and applications of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

CALUMET — Committees of the Village Council are not required by law to deliberate in public and are not subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) because they are not public bodies, an attorney told the council in a special meeting on Thursday.

Matt Wodja of the firm of White and Wodja of Alpena, Michigan, said the law applies to legislative bodies or governmental bodies empowered to exercise governmental or proprietary authority or performing governmental function when at least a quorum of its membership is present for the purpose of deliberating or rendering a decision on a public body.

A committee, while it may be comprised of village trustees, does not constitute a quorum, he said, and therefore is not considered a public body.

Committees are not governmental bodies because they are not empowered to perform governmental or proprietary functions or to exercise proprietary authority, he said, citing case law and legal opinions issued by the state’s attorney general.

No such provision exists in the actual text of the OMA statute.

At issue was the topic of whether a committee comprised of board members was obligated to adhere to the OMA in regard to open or closed session meetings.

Wodja said a committee, in this case the Calumet Village Personnel Committee, was not subject to the OMA for a number of reasons.

Jennifer Dukarski, attorney for the Michigan Associated Press, agreed that case law and legal opinions have created a loophole, but the scope of the definition of acting in a purely advisory capacity is extremely limited.

While she agreed in rare cases that extra-statutory law allows committees to be exempt from the OMA, it not applicable to most committee deliberations.

If their work is purely advisable, the provision can also act as a loophole to conduct deliberations behind closed doors.

“It is not in the actual text of the law,” Dukarski said of the loophole. “It is precedent set in bits and pieces from previous court cases and state attorney general legal opinions. This provision to exempt is extremely narrow in nature. They can’t deliberate on anything that leads to a vote or action.”

Nathan Anderson, a member of the audience during Thursday’s meeting, asked how the public can determine the committee is adhering to those rules if the meeting is closed to the public.

This question was also posed to Dukarski, who said: “The only way to prevent them from abusing (this provision) by public communities…is for interested citizenship and interested media to monitor their activities.”

She said the public can monitor activities of public bodies and the bodies they claim are exempt from public monitoring by scrutinizing all the body’s committee structures, rules and policies on its website and in its charter; and also making FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to compel them to provide minutes of these meetings.

The OMA covers rules and requirements for meetings, Dukarski said. This loophole does not exempt public bodies from complying with providing information through the FOIA, she said.

“Basically it comes down to closely monitoring the actions of the larger body,” Dukarski said, “in this case the Village Council, and reporting on its lack of deliberations on important issues. It’s very difficult to determine whether a public body is violating this principle, since the loophole blocks any independent monitoring in a committee’s deliberations.”