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Open Meetings Act question/Michigan

Discussion in 'Journalism topics only' started by newsguyone, Aug 16, 2006.

  1. newsguyone

    newsguyone Member

    Hello folks, long-time lurker.
    I work at a small weekly in Michigan. I do the news/sports/pictures/layout etc.
    The other night, after a village council meeting, I came back to the office to write up the news story and got a call saying "Did you go to the council meeting?"
    "Yep," I said.
    "Did you go to the other council meeting?"
    "Ugh, what?"
    "The village council is meeting right now at the local pub."

    So, I went over there. The shutters were down. The sign said closed.
    I tried the door. It was open. So I walked in.
    All five members present at the council meeting were there. The village manager and attorney were there. Nobody else was there except the owner.

    The open meetings act is a little vague, in that it allows for social functions.
    This is what they claim, obviously.
    In subsequent interviews, I've learned that this is a tradition dating 30-years.
    Everyone SWEARS they don't talk business. Which is pretty hard to believe and IMPOSSIBLE to verify.

    Any thoughts?
  2. This is a BLATANT violation of open meetings laws. You need to let your publisher/editor know what's going on.

    Back in the day, my little 7,000K daily found out from a disgruntled voter that the town council would gather for a "traditional" pre-meet dinner. That's where the horse-trading and vote-swapping would get talked out, then they'd show up at the meeting and vote on some complicated issue with almost no discussion and amazingly enough arrive at a unanimous decision.

    After my newspaper filed suit, they stopped holding those "working" dinners. And they substituted them with conference calls to get on everyone on the same page. When my ballsy editor threatened to have their phone records subpoenaed, the town attorney (who had lobbied against the practice, to no avail) got them to cut it out.

    The school board also liked to hold unannounced "workshop" meetings on the off weeks between regularly scheduled meetings. Although I was the sports guy, I got sent to one of those when we got word they were meeting. Boy, the superintendent was pretty frosted when I strolled in. ;D
  3. newsguyone

    newsguyone Member

    Thanks for the reply.
    Yes, unanimous votes are all the rage in the village. I am the editor. And my published knows.
    We're moving along with the story. We're consulting with an attorney about the legal issue ...

    The legal issue could be dicey unless one of those people come unglued and admit that yes, they discuss village business at these meetings. The village attorney was at the "social gathering" and says the OMA allows for social gatherings ... which it does. Sort of.
    We've been advised to send it to the county prosecutor. However, the village attorney is the assistant prosecutor in a county with the "good old boys" network.

    The story, however, should bring enough public pressure to stop these meetings.
  4. PopeDirkBenedict

    PopeDirkBenedict Active Member

    If the local DA is part of the problem, don't be afrad to contact the Michigan Attorney General's office. And yes, that is a blatant violation. It would be one thing if they had beers in a crowded bar. It is quite another to be the only people in bar that has a closed sign up. Definitely take this issue to the publisher and the proper legal authorities.
  5. newsguyone

    newsguyone Member

    As I said, the publisher is aware (We're a small office) Counting myself, we have 1.5 editorial employees.

    I've contacted five of the seven members of the council in the last few hours and I am meeting the village's attorney tomorrow.
    In the course of the interviews, I've been told the meetings are a tradition. They've been going after every meeting, for the most part, for 30 YEARS! Anywhere from two to seven members of the seven-member council at every gathering.
    I've talked to some oldtimers who were on those councils and they've confirmed it.
    My head is spinning. I've been on the job since Jan. 1. I'm an outsider in this town and a lot of local big wigs will be upset however this turns out.
    Oh well.
  6. slappy4428

    slappy4428 Active Member

    No question... they can't sit together at a funeral without it being a potential Open Meetings act... contact the MPA attorney immediately -- well, in the morning....
  7. Slappy's right. They can't get together if they have a quorum present. That's why so many of these so-called brainstorming sessions involve only a minority of the voting members. It's to get around the open meeting laws.
  8. wickedwritah

    wickedwritah Guest

    In Massachusetts, they can't even all go to a game at Fenway if they have a chance to cross paths -- unless it's advertised and posted.

    I'm not sure about the Michigan law, but that meeting, even if it's social in nature, would need to be posted in Pennsylvania, notorious for crappy Sunshine Act regs.
  9. newsguyone

    newsguyone Member

    Well, it looks like the Open Meetings Act in Michgian is weak
    According to the lawyer for the state's press association attorney, as long as business is not discussed, social gatherings are legal.
    They could meet every night of the year for 30 years, and as long as they do not discuss business (and unless one cracks and admits otherwise) they are perfectly legal.

    I've got a group that got caught, and now boasts that the 'gatherings' are beneficial, and the law permits it.

    Oh well, they'll still look like schmucks when the story comes out.
  10. Armchair_QB

    Armchair_QB Well-Known Member

    Go after the bar for serving alcohol after hours. I'm serious. If your council is going to pull shit like that you need to fuck with them as much as possible.
  11. slappy4428

    slappy4428 Active Member

    Sit right at the table with them. When the owner tries to throw you out, tell the council they are in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings act and it is a violation of state law.
    If their attorney isn't there, they are going to be uneasy.
    If the attorney is there, stare him straight in the eye and tell him "You realize that if this council discusses business here tonight and you hear it, you are violating state law and as an officer of the court are bound to uphold the law."
    Then break shit on your way out.

    Beneficial? Ask them publicly and on the record how those meetings are beneficial. If they say anything that sniffs of town business, they have admitted to violating the law.
    "SO what you're saying sir is that that it's beneficial because you can discuss this in an informal matter, but by acknowledging this, you have admitted to breaking the law?"
  12. Gold

    Gold Active Member

    Here's another angle you might consider.

    I don't know what the law is in Michigan, but I know in New Jersey (from my old political hanging out days) that if the bar was closed, you couldn't close the shutters and the ward leader/bar owner would have to keep them open if people were in the bar - I'm pretty sure that was by law and the reason would be so you could see that nothing illegal was going on - that alcohol wasn't being served after hours.

    Just a thought
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