Loophole does not make secret meetings proper
It is more than coincidental that as the Daily Mining Gazette has upgraded its coverage of local government in Calumet — as it has in the rest of Houghton, Keweenaw, Ontonagon and Baraga counties — the Village Council has responded by attempting, through a dubious legal loophole, to evade monitoring of its actions.
Armed with a letter from a downstate law firm that cherrypicks case law and legal opinions, the village went legalistic to hide the deliberations of a committee by claiming it is exempt from the Open Meetings Act (OMA). There are indications this tactic will be applied to all the deliberations of all Village Council committees.
If that’s the case, here will be the scenario of issues to come before the Village Council in the future:
•The issue will be discussed between three trustees in a secret committee meeting, with no one else hearing information, details, questions, comments and deliberations.
•The committee may or may not vote on it, but a consensus will be determined.
•One or two committee members reports details to the Village Council president, who will determine 1) if the issue should be raised in a public council meeting and 2) how the vote will go, since the president would know how each committee member stands.
•If it does go to the full council, there will be no need for discussion or debate, since the matter has already been settled in the committee meeting, and village taxpayers are completely cut out of the process from beginning to end.
The loophole cherrypicked by the lawyers is not meant to be blanket provision exempting all subgroups of public bodies like committees, since the actual OMA statute defines public bodies as “any state or local legislative or governing body, including a board, commission, committee, subcommittee, authority, or council, that is empowered by state constitution, statute, charter, ordinance, resolution, or rule…”
Nowhere is this loophole found in the text of the OMA statute. It’s just taken from briefs written by lawyers and judges’ rulings from various court cases and lifted out of context — if it’s going to be applied to all village committees — from attorney general legal opinions.
Although this heinous provision against the public interest should be stricken from the law, it is narrowly constructed to exempt public bodies acting in “purely advisory” roles. Michigan Press Association attorney Jennifer Dukarski described this hypothetical scenario as an example:
Officials of a village decide to keep City Hall open on Saturdays to serve residents. However, the heating system is turned off on the weekends, and village workers who have to work in the building on Saturdays want the heat on. The Personnel Committee decides to meet to discuss the issue and report back to the Village Council. That meeting could be exempted from the OMA.
One wonders why any matters — even such innocuous matters like this — need to exempt the public, because it opens the door and makes slippery the slope to violating the spirit and intent public-access laws. In situations like the Calumet Village Council’s action, there is little recourse for village residents — save one. We offer residents of the village of Calumet a more excellent way…
Though their action is unethical, unknowable and unenforceable, they can be held to account for it. There is at least one power that rules over corrupt and unjust laws that the community has: the power of the ballot box.
It’s a two-step process. First, determine which trustees are going along with this illegitimate conspiracy to conceal the public’s business from the public. Second, vote the conspirators out when their terms expire.
Backed by their outside legal advisers, there are already Village Council trustees waving the letter from the attorney and saying this newspaper is wrong in claiming they are violating the OMA. We have two words for them:
Of course they cannot do that by holding to their loophole, because by keeping their actions secret, they cannot make the case that their actions meet the narrow scope of the loophole. They could be hoist with their own petard by village voters who believe their elected officials should act in the open.