Jan. 23 2017 11:29 AM

Deeply divided council, in search of leadership solution, has resulted to secret meetings which may violate state law

MONDAY Jan. 23 – A deeply divided City Council, searching for a solution to a leadership impasse, has been meeting secretly and likely violating Michigan’s Open Meetings Act to find solutions to break the impasse and move forward city business.

Council is divided into two factions. On one side sits Councilmembers at-large Kathie Dunbar and Patricia Spitzley. They are joined by Second Ward Councilmember Tina Houghton and Fourth Ward Councilmember Jessica Yorko. The other faction is made up of Councilmembers at-large Carol Wood and Judi Brown Clarke and Third Ward Councilmember Adam Hussain as well as First Ward Councilmember Jody Washington.

In public, the body has met three times since Jan. 9 to elect a new president and vice president. Despite “as many as 30” different nomination combination being put forward, the Council has failed to find a compromise leadership slate.

But in private, meeting during council recesses, in the bathrooms, offices, conference rooms and by phone, the Dunbar faction has fashioned its proposals to break the impasse, reaching out to other council members with its leadership and committee decisions.

“Oh, absolutely,” Yorko told City Pulse Friday evening when asked if this is what is happening.

The problem? This likely flies in the face of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act which requires all deliberations towards a policy decision by a public body to be conducted in an open meeting before the public. That’s the opinion of Patrick Wright, the vice president of legal affairs for the conservative think tank The Mackinac Center.

“They are supposed to do this stuff where the public can see it,” Wright said. “They have to debate this in public.”

The process being used is referred to as “round robin.”

He noted that the secret meetings are likely “where the horse trading” is happening to get to a deal.

Yorko said she is not worried the Council is violating the Open Meetings Act because the faction she is working is has been consulting with City Attorney Jim Smiertka. Smiertka did not respond to an email inquiry.

On Saturday, Brown Clarke said she was unaware of the strategy of the other faction.

“Based on what you are telling me, yes I think we might be violating the Open Meetings Act,” she said.

And over the weekend, some councilmembers indicated that such a deal may have been struck. That deal would land Spitzley in the presidency and Wood in the vice presidency and expand the Development and Planning Committee to a four-person committee – two people from each faction.

If in fact Council has come to that resolution, outside of a public meeting it too could be a violation of the Open Meetings Act.

The Development and Planning Committee has been a key sticking point in this leadership fight. The faction involved with Dunbar supports continuing the tax abatements and incentives process as it currently operates. The faction which involves Washington wants more oversight of tax incentives, including passage of a controversial open bidding ordinance. That ordinance would require developers receiving tax incentives to participate in a public bidding process and to open all bids in a public meeting. It’s opposed by the Lansing Regional Chamber of Commerce – which argues those provisions should be put in the universal master development agreements – and organized labor. With four councilmembers and the mayor up for re-election, they are not keen to trigger the ire of either group.

The Council will meet again tonight at 5:30. They will start the meeting with a closed session wherein Smiertka will provide an overview of the legal impacts the continued impasse may have on the city and city operations – such as public hearings to move developments ahead. The Open Meetings Act allows, but does not require, a public body to go into close session to consider a legal opinion. Some Councilmembers have indicated they would not be opposed to hearing the legal opinion in an open session so that the public could be aware of the legal stakes of the ongoing impasse. Following the closed session, the body will meet in public again and consider leadership choices, including the possible compromise leadership slate.

[00:09:15] Heywood: So my question though was have the the folks that you're working with Tina and Kathie and Pat have you all sort of made these proposals and said hey here's a solution we'll do this for leadership who will do this for the committees. And sent somebody to approach somebody in the other faction to say hey how is this proposal? [21.7]

[00:09:37] Yorko: Oh absolutely. [0.0]

[00:09:37] Heywood: Oh that has happened. [0.7]

[00:09:39] Yorko: Absolutely. [0.6]

[00:09:40] Heywood: How many times has that happened. [1.2]

[00:09:45] Yorko: I couldn't speak to the number of times, I don't know. [3.6]

[00:09:50] Heywood: Do you have any concerns that the open meetings Act is being violated. [2.9]

[00:09:55] Yorko: I'm pretty careful in checking with Jim Smiertka about how to handle all the conversations we;re having during this process. And you know be on the right Side of that regulation and so I have not witnessed or participated in anything that would indicate a problem. [25.3]

[00:10:22] Heywood: OK. So is there going to be a resolution Monday night. [5.5]

[00:10:30] Yorko: God willing. [0.2]

[00:10:31] Heywood: Is there a tentative leadership slate that you're aware of that may have the votes walking on Monday night. [6.2]

[00:10:39] Yorko: I don't want to jinx it.