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Tag Archive | "Open Meetings Act"

Councilors file lawsuit over closed session


 

City calls special meeting for Thursday Oct. 30

Two Cedar Springs City Council members and a city resident are suing the Cedar Springs City Council over what they believe to be an Open Meetings Act violation. And now the City of Cedar Springs has scheduled a special meeting for Thursday evening, October 30, at 7 p.m. at City Hall to consider whether to rescind the motion that started the whole thing.

City Council members Bob Truesdale and Dan Clark, and resident Mark Laws, filed the suit October 7. They allege the OMA violation occurred at the August 21 City Council meeting, when they went into closed session believing there was a written communication from the attorney to consider. Mayor Mark Fankhauser told the council during the workshop portion of the meeting that they needed to go into closed session because he had correspondence from the attorney, and it was added to the agenda that way. They went into closed session at the tail end of the meeting, and when they came out, they voted 4-3 to renew the contract of City Manager Thad Taylor.

The lawsuit alleges that there was no attorney correspondence considered.

Those who voted against the contract—Dan Clark, Jerry Hall, and Bob Truesdale—noted that they had not seen it before, and did not have time to digest it. And, in fact, said they did not know they were going to be voting on it that night.

The Council had also not done a formal evaluation on the City Manager. Truesdale said it was based on an evaluation that he had put together as Mayor after Taylor had been here only a short time. Two of the present Council members were not on the Council at the time so had no input.

Council member Clark said a lawsuit wouldn’t be his first choice. “I have tried to reach out to the Council and to Thad  (Taylor) about the way we handle things related to the OMA,” he explained. “We have not aligned ourselves at all with the attorney general handbook on the OMA. Although I’ve encouraged the Council to align ourselves with it, they didn’t take any action. A major part of my job is to represent the citizens. So when a major part of the Council does something I feel is wrong, after talking with them, what are we left with to do? It’s an attention-getter.”

He said that the procedure used was irresponsible, careless, and unprofessional. “I feel like we can do better than that,” he remarked.

Truesdale feels the same way. “We saw it was something that needed to be addressed to prohibit illegal closed session of Council,” he explained. “I feel that we are the laughingstock of the surrounding communities, and we can do better. We should be a model.”

The City has scheduled a special meeting of the Cedar Springs City Council on Thursday October 30, to “consider a motion to rescind the motion to adjourn to executive/closed session as described in the minutes of the August 21, 2014 meeting (Item No. 11) and to affirm, approve, reenact and ratify the Employment agreement between Thad Taylor and the City of Cedar Springs dated September 10, 2014.” The Post called and left messages for Acting City Manager/Clerk Linda Christensen both Tuesday and Wednesday for clarification, but did not get a return call before press time. The special meeting will include a public hearing, Council deliberations, and a decision.

Mayor ProTem Patty Troost told the Post that while she didn’t think they did anything illegal, the meeting would allow them to discuss and discover whether they had done something wrong.

Truesdale feels the meeting was called to circumvent the pending lawsuit. He doesn’t want to see the City Manager’s contract reaffirmed. He says that one reason is because of the amount of money they would be giving Taylor if he were terminated: six months severance totaling over $35,000. “It just doesn’t sound like good business practice to me,” he said.

The contract does not allow severance, however, if he is terminated for reasons such as fraud, impropriety, dishonesty, neglect of duty, and violations of the law, and several other reasons.

Truesdale said he hopes people will turn out to voice their opinion. “Unless you attend this meeting and provide your support for wanting city leaders of higher integrity, these shenanigans will continue to happen,” he said.

 

 

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From the Editor’s Desk


 

By Judy Reed

 

Late last month, the Cedar Springs City Council went into closed session without being specific on what it regarded. When they came out, there was a vote on a new contract for the City Manager. It was approved 4-3. (click here for story.) This is a letter I read to the Council at their last meeting, September 11.

 

Cedar Springs City Council,

I have spoken with the Mayor briefly about this, but wanted to make the council aware of some concerns I have regarding the procedure used at last month’s meeting to approve the new contract for our city manager.

Please understand that I am not disputing the contract. It’s nothing personal regarding Thad. He is our City Manager, and if you have evaluated him and decided that he met his goals and will continue as our City Manager, then he does indeed need a contract.

My concerns, as I said, are with the procedure:

First, why wasn’t it on the agenda as approval of the City Manager’s contract? Instead, it was added to the end of the agenda to go into closed session to discuss “attorney correspondence.” And when you (the council) actually adjourned to closed session, the minutes read that you motioned to go into Executive Session, (which is a term used by the private sector and not a municipality) “to discuss a written, legal opinion of the City Attorney.” No mention of the City Manager contract. The language should have been more specific.

That presented two problems: One, it left the public in the dark, and gave them no time to comment on it. And two, even the council members did not have a copy of the contract, or know what was to be discussed, so had no time to digest the information before voting on it.

My second big concern is that the Open Meetings Act only allows specific things that you can go into closed session for. Discussing a city manager’s contract is NOT one of them. You can see the list in Sec. 8 of the OMA. Attorneys Foster Swift Collins & Smith PC, of Michigan, who wrote “Dealing with Employment Issues and Complying with the Open Meetings Act,” specifically stated this in their conclusion. They said:

CONCLUSION

Closed session is permitted under certain circumstances for discussion of:

dismissal, suspension, or disciplining of, or to hear complaints or charges brought against, or to consider a periodic personnel evaluation;

collective bargaining; or

applications.

However, not every employment-related issue falls into these exemptions.

For example, a city may not meet in closed session to negotiate a new employment contract (except for a collective bargaining agreement) for a city manager. Similarly, a village may not meet in closed session to discuss budget cuts that may result in layoffs or the reduction of employment benefits.” (http://www.fosterswift.com/publications-Employment-Issues-Complying-Open-Meetings-Act.html)

I do understand that Thad’s contract was to expire yesterday, Sept. 10 and you were under the gun to get it done. But since it was already late in the game, I think it would have been better to give Council members some time to digest the contract, and the public some notice, and then either approve it in a special meeting or at tonight’s meeting, even though a day late. Otherwise, it appears to people like it was something railroaded through. And I don’t think you want that or meant for it to be that way.

I believe that each one of you wants what’s best for this city, although you may have different ideas of what that is. The other thing you have in common is that you all want people to be more involved in their city government. But they can’t do that if you shut them out and disregard the Open Meetings Act, whether by accident or by design.

Thank you,

Judy Reed, Editor

The Cedar Springs Post

 

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Investigation into open meetings violation will go on


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By Judy Reed

 

The Cedar Springs City Council voted last month to conduct an investigation into whether a violation had occurred under the Open Meetings Act last July, when the Council voted to take Mayor Bob Truesdale into closed session to hear complaints against him.

The Michigan Open Meetings Act states that a closed session may be called to hear complaints against a public officer, when the person requests a closed hearing. It can also be rescinded by the individual at any time.

According to Truesdale, he did not ask for the closed session, but was instead told by two of the council members that they were going to do this in closed session. Truesdale said he voted with the council figuring he had nothing to hide, and was not aware of his rights to end it at any time.

Two of the council members—Patricia Troost and Ashley Bremmer—are up for recall and the alleged open meetings violation is one of the reasons listed.

While Councilmember Dan Clark originally voted for the investigation, he began to have second thoughts last week, after reviewing two opinions by former State Attorney General Frank Kelley in connection with recalls and using public funds to defend the members up for recall. So he asked to have the matter revisited when the council met last Thursday for a special goals workshop session.

“I voted for it (the investigation) last month because I was not a councilmember at the time it occurred and did not want to interfere, “ he explained. “But when I realized that there was a conflict with an attorney general opinion, I tried to have them change the language to take it away from the recall.”

At the workshop, Clark proposed that they delay the investigation until they could find out whether the two opinions he read would cause the council to do something illegal. “In connecting the investigation with the recall, we are putting together two areas that should not be—the electoral and the judicial,” he explained.

The two opinions he cited were from former State Attorney General Frank Kelley.  In opinion 6704, dated March 22, 1991, Kelley answered the question on whether a municipality can use its funds for the purpose of paying expenses incurred by its city commissioners in the defense of a recall petition arising out of their performance of their duties as elected officers. He answered that no officer has any duties regarding the…outcome of  a recall election, and that his opinion was that the township may not expend public funds to challenge the sufficiency of  recall petitions.

The second opinion, no. 6715, dated March 17, 1992, also addressed public funds to pay legal fees of village council members who are subject of a recall. He again stated that a village may not use its funds for the purpose of paying legal fees to legal counsel opposing a recall petition.

Clark likens those opinions to what he sees the council is now doing—performing an internal investigation using public funds to exonerate the two members under recall. But Mayor Mark Fankhauser sees it differently. He says the investigation is not on behalf of Troost or Bremmer.

“We rely on our lawyer to act legally on our behalf. The recall was the catalyst that caused the entire to be compromised, and I felt it was important to address whether the council had done anything improper. It will be a small impact financially.”

City Manager Thad Taylor told the council that he had asked City Attorney Jeffrey Slugget whether they were using the funds improperly, and he told them that the city’s charter says they can use public funds as long as they are using it for a public purpose. He explained that the city must do the initial gathering of information, then show any evidence they gather to the prosecutor. If the prosecutor feels there is a case, it gets turned over to the Michigan State Police for further investigation.

Fankhauser said he felt the investigation should continue so that the public knows whether or not something illegal has been done.

Troost agreed, saying the investigation would tell them if five of them still on the council did something wrong.

Clark said the real issue is that they shouldn’t spend money on an electoral process.  “I want us to have a good image. I don’t want to spend public money on this. As a public body, we are influencing the electorate unintentionally.”

He said if there had to be an investigation, he felt it should come from a private source, not one funded by the city.

Clark also took issue with lawyer Sluggett’s response when asked at a previous meeting about who can call a closed session. “Mr. Sluggett said over and over that anyone can call a closed session and it is not so. I would like to have more than his opinion. As a council I don’t want to be diametrically opposed to what the attorney general says.”

Clark moved to amend their motion to investigate and asked for Taylor to stop the investigation and not restart until further info was gathered. It was defeated 6-1, with Truesdale saying he accidentally voted no when he meant to vote yes. That may have been true for one other council member as well.

Mark Laws, the Cedar Springs resident who has filed the recall petition, has also filed a complaint against the Council under the Michigan Campaign Finance Act. Under that act, a public body must maintain strict neutrality in each election and not attempt to influence the outcome of an election.

 

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Let the sun shine in


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We may be enjoying some much-need outdoor sunshine this week, but we are also celebrating sunshine of another kind. March 16-22 is being celebrated as “Sunshine Week” across the nation. Sunshine week is a week dedicated to shining a light on the importance of freedom of information, transparency and openness in government.

In this week’s paper, stories marked with a sunshine week emblem show that they were made possible through the Freedom of Information Act or Open Meetings Act. We hope this will bring awareness to how much we depend on an open, honest government.

It is important that citizens participate in our local government meetings and exercise their right to know. As responsible citizens working to keep our community strong, healthy and vibrant, we need to keep the focus on having an open government.

For more information on the FOIA and OMA acts visit the Open Government Guide at www.rcfp.org/open-government-guide. You can scroll down the page, and see the state guide for Michigan.

 

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Let the sun shine in


We may be enjoying some much-need outdoor sunshine this week, but we are also celebrating sunshine of another kind. March 11-17 is being celebrated as “Sunshine Week” across the nation. Sunshine week is a week dedicated to shining a light on the importance of freedom of information, transparency and openness in government.

In this week’s paper, stories marked with a sunshine week emblem show that they were made possible through the Freedom of Information Act or Open Meetings Act. We hope this will bring awareness to how much we depend on an open, honest government.

It is important that citizens participate in our local government meetings and exercise their right to know. As responsible citizens working to keep our community strong, healthy and vibrant, we need to keep the focus on having an open government.

For more information on the Federal FOIA and OMA acts visit the Open Government Guide at www.rcfp.org/open-government-guide. You can also scroll down the page, and see the state guide for Michigan.

 

 

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