Aug. 10 2017 10:19 AM

County commissioners attempt end run around Open Meetings Act to address bad audit findings

Ingham County commissioners wanted to meet in secret to discuss the fourth year of negative audits of the Treasurer’s Office in a deliberate attempt to circumvent the Open Meetings Act.

The plan was pushed by East Lansing Democrat Mark Grebner and supported by the Board of Commissioners’ chairwoman, Sarah Anthony, during a meeting of the Democratic Caucus on July 25.

Democratic commissioners sought to reduce the number of elected officials serving a Finance Committee subcommittee tasked with finding remedies to problems pointed out by the accounting firm Plante Moran for the fourth year in a row. By limiting the number to three from four — Democrats Brian McGrain and Grebner as well as Republican Commissioner Robin Case-Naeyaert — keeping minutes could be dispensed with.

That’s because three members would not represent a quorum of the full Finance Committee, which has seven members.

In a five-minute discussion captured on tape, Grebner said in a July 25 meeting that Anthony “has suggested to me that she would be happy not to serve on the subcommittee, which would make it not a subcommittee, which would mean we wouldn’t have minutes, and we could maybe move a little bit faster and just sort of, you know meet.

“So I think I would just call together a meeting of the three of the four people I appointed a subcommittee, but it won’t be the subcommittee. Then we’ll be able to move a little faster.”

“Is everybody OK with that?” Anthony asked. None of the Democrats in the meeting raised concerns. “Talk to me if you want more information about why that makes sense. There may be some discussions taking place specifically around employee issues, so I think that makes a lot of sense.”

“I am willing to hold a meeting, like, immediately,” Grebner said. “Of course we don’t even have a matter of Open Meetings Act, so we don’t even have to publish it. We can just, like, meet.”

Grebner was also happy with the idea of not having a written record of the meeting.

“It would be good not to have minutes,” he said.

Of the 14 seats on the county governing body, 11 are held by Democrats and only three are held by Republicans. Ingham County Treasurer Eric Schertzing is a Democrat. Anthony and McGrain both serve on the board of the Ingham County Land Bank, which Schertzing chairs, which was also criticized in the audit.

Nine of the 11 Democrats on the Board of Commissioners attended the meeting, with Todd Tennis and Deb Nolan absent.

Only Carol Koenig, of East Lansing, raised a concern.

“I just don’t want it to seem or have an appearance of being without public input,” she said.

Nearly a week later, Grebner defended the move for secrecy in an interview.

“The voters can’t have both: us, like, actually dealing with reality,” Grebner said. “And doing it in a public session. And therefore, we do this privately.”

Shortly after that interview, Grebner called and said the secrecy was over, there would be a four-person quorum present and the meetings would all comply with the Open Meetings Act.

“So, what you’ll get is us talking in euphemisms,” he said.

Anthony denied there was any consideration of circumventing the state transparency law, until quotes from the caucus meeting were read to her.

“Once there were concerns raised about the Open Meetings Act, we stopped,” said Anthony on Monday when reached by phone. “We would never want to violate that.”

But Grebner said the move was her idea, and Case-Naeyaert, the subcommittee’s sole Republican member, said Anthony consulted with her about circumventing the Open Meetings Act as well.

Case-Naeyaert said she attended the meeting July 25 and was “surprised” by the discussion in the Democratic Caucus.

She said days after the caucus meeting, Anthony called her to get her opinion on whether to hold the meeting in public because, Case-Naeyaert said, she was “getting pushback” on the transparency question.

“I think the subcommittee should meet in a public forum,” Case-Naeyaert said she told Anthony. “I don’t know who she contacted or not, but we ended up having a meeting in public.”

Randy Schafer, another Republican commissioner, said he was “appalled” when read quotes from the caucus meeting and the interview with Grebner.

“I am absolutely shocked,” he said Monday.

“I find that deplorable. The public has a right to know. Anytime there is not a transparent government all respect is lost. I am appalled to hear and learn that.”

Schafer also accused Democrats of protecting fellow Democrat Schertzing.

“If it was anyone other than Eric, if Eric was not a loyal party member, that person would have been hung out to dry by now,” Schafer said. “Can imagine if that person was a Republican or an Independent?” Republicans are not the only ones criticizing the moves.

“The spirit of the OMA explicitly implies that meetings of all government bodies should be held in the open and accessible to the public who pays them,” said Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association. She said it was true “especially when dealing with taxpayer money.”

She was also critical of Grebner’s response. “It’s unfortunate that Commissioner Grebner doesn’t feel his constituents should be part of the process and that they need to be shielded from the discussion of something that could dramatically impact the county’s bottom line.”