EAGLE RIVER - Keweenaw County Circuit Court has found the Keweenaw County Board of Commissioners in violation of the Open Meetings Act.
In February, the county board denied a handful of individuals the right to speak at a public meeting including a proposal that a cell tower be placed on Brockway Mountain Drive. Following the board's decision denying the individuals to speak, Alex Protzel, Frank Fiala, Peggy Lanctot-Kauppi, William Marlor and Phoebe Wienke filed a suit in Keweenaw County.
On Feb. 16, Protzel approached the board during the allotted public comment time to give opposition to the cell tower. Chair Ernest Mooney denied Protzel the opportunity to speak because time to give individuals an opportunity to express their opinion "has taken place."
In December, the Zoning Board of Appeals voted in favor of putting the tower on the summit and Mooney said the board would hear no further comment about the tower unless it is to take suggestions about an alternate plan to provide cell service to people of Keweenaw County that is cost-effective.
After months of litigation, the court entered a judgment in favor of the plaintiffs against the defendants including $550 for attorney fees and costs. The defendant is also permanently enjoined from further violations of the Open Meetings Act.
"I hope this will be as a reminder to all elected officials that they are accountable to the people they serve," said Evan Dixon, attorney to the plaintiffs. "Government 'of the people, by the people and for the people' is dependent upon 'we, the people' having a voice and being heard by our elected officials."
According to the Open Meetings Act 267 of 1976, a person shall be permitted to address a meeting of a public body under rules established and recorded by the public body. The legislature or a house of the legislature may provide by rule that the right to address may be limited to prescribed times at hearings and committee meetings only. The agenda for the Keweenaw County Board of Commissioners allows for two sections of public comment at no more than three minutes per individual. Feb. 16, others were allowed public comment not pertaining to the cell tower.
"Public participation is the hallmark of democracy," Dixon said. "Without public input, the system breaks down. Elected officials have to remember that they represent the people and are accountable to the people."
Dixon said the plaintiffs took the time and initiative to become informed on the cell tower issue and had valuable information for the board.
Following the meeting in February, Protzel said he had intended to use his public comment time to talk to the board about alternative locations that could be investigated.