Commissioners discuss Open Meetings Act
HURON COUNTY — Faced with allegations to the contrary, the Huron County Board of Commissioners are not violating the Open Meetings Act when board committees meet without notice and out of the public’s view, the county’s attorney said.
Huron County Corporation Council Steve Allen assured the board during its regular Tuesday meeting that committees are not subject to the Open Meetings Act and commissioners have not violated the law by excluding media and the public from committee discussions.
Allen said the standing committees, which each comprise three board members, do not meet the definition of a public body under the law because no decisions are made at committee level. He supported the assertion with Michigan Attorney General Opinion No. 6935, which states, “Although the definition of public body is broad, it is limited to bodies that are empowered by law to exercise governmental or proprietary authority. Prior opinions of this office have consistently concluded that the definition of public body does not include advisory boards or committees of a public body that do not exercise governmental or proprietary authority.”
Commissioner John Bodis brought up Attorney General Opinion No. 7000, which, at a glance, appears to contradict the opinion Allen cited.
“It’s not applicable,” Allen said after the meeting. “We don’t delegate the authority to make decisions to the committees.”
Opinion No. 7000 states, “a meeting of a standing committee of a county board of commissioners, composed of less than a quorum of the full board, is subject to the Open Meetings Act when the committee is effectively authorized to determine whether items of county business will or will not be referred for action by the full board.”
Allen said the opinion was made about a situation that does not happen in Huron County. Committees act as fact-finders, and while they make recommendations to the full board, the full board also has access all the information the committees collect.
“The board can still make the decisions that they want on all the recommendations,” Allen said. “It’s the decision making that’s supposed to be made in public. They deliberate in open meetings and they make decisions in open meetings.”
Commissioner Ron Wruble added he feels it’s a problem when the press attends a committee meeting and prints an article before the full board is able to be updated about the issue. He said, as a courtesy, media should wait to print committee news until the full board has the information.
“It’s going to be divulged at some point. … It’s not like we’re keeping it secret or anything. It’s just a matter of timing,” Wruble said.
Opinion No. 7000 was issued after a committee formed by a school board essentially made a decision when recommended no policy changes to the full board.
“Testimony at trial, although equivocal, indicated that defendant school board did not intend to delegate final decision-making authority to the (committee). However, there was testimony by a school board member that, because the (committee) recommended no change with respect to either policy presented to it for review, defendant school board believed that it did not have to take any action on the (committee’s) recommendation. In other words, by failing to vote, defendant school board “affirmed” the (committee’s) recommendation to leave intact the current methods…” the opinion notes.
Despite not being subject to the Open Meetings Act, Allen said committees formed by the Huron County Board of Commissioners generally have allowed members and the public and press to attend if requested. He said members of the board do not attempt to hide information -from the public unless it deals with an ongoing legal issue, the discipline of a county employee, an employee’s medical status or other issues that are private by law and are not subject to the Freedom of Information or the Open Meetings acts.
“I like that my members of the board of commissioners are sensitive to the issues of not only transparency, but the appearance of transparency,” Allen said.
He added that requiring committees to comply with the Open Meetings Act would be overly cumbersome, as the act requires public meetings to be published in advanced, agendas, minutes and other actions that would bog down a committee’s ability to work effectively.
“One of the reasons you have a committee is so you can streamline the government somewhat,” he said.