Seeking to limit how and what information is available to the public, Democrats on the Ingham County Board of Commissioners have curtailed full reporting of their caucus meetings — a freedom of information issue because those meetings are where policy is largely if unofficially decided.
Because they hold 11 of 14 seats on the commission, Democrats control county government and policy. Frustrated by Ingham County Clerk Barb Byrum’s penchant for including all of the discussions at their public sessions, the Democraticcontrolled commission directed her to reduce what is included in the official minutes.
Citing a legal opinion from their lawyers, the Democratic commissioners ordered Byrum and her team to record only motions and votes. That’s the bare minimum required to meet the requirements of the state’s Open Meetings Act.
The change, which came in February 2015, only recently came to light.
While their reasons are gauzy, commissioners discussing the new reporting limits explained that the public is likely to misinterpret what it reads or hears.
Commissioner Kara Hope from Delhi Township supported the move because “summarizations of discussions and comments” could be “taken out of context,” minutes show.
Commission Chairwoman Sarah Anthony, a Democrat from south Lansing, “Several years ago, the Democratic Caucus moved to instruct the clerk’s staff to strictly follow OMA requirements instead of attempting to transcribe word-for-word interactions between commissioners,” she said by email: “All caucus meetings are recorded and can be obtained by the public and media.”
Bryum said those recordings are held in the Board of Commissioners’ office in Mason. They would be subject to the Freedom of Information Act.
Both parties have caucus meetings before the biweekly commission meetings. In the Democratic Caucus meetings, actions like determining who will be appointed to committees is completed. The meetings are subject to the state’s Open Meetings Act, but that directive limits voters ability to determine the depth of any debates that may have occurred during those meetings.
Republican Commissioner Robin Case Naeyaert, of Mason, said she found irony between the actions of local Democrats and the vocal demands for transparency by state leaders of the Democratic Party.
“On a state level, we are hearing over and over about transparency from Democrats,” she said. “But here we are locally and we see them moving away from transparency. That’s not lost on me.”
As a Republican, she’s in the super-minority on the commission, just one of three GOP commissioners on the 14-member body. And that supermajority raises another transparency issue for the body.
East Lansing Democrat Mark Grebner turned to his August defense in supporting the limited information in caucus minutes.
In his hypothetical example, he asked if it would be fair to record in the minutes, “which can be found on google (sic) in eight years by some employer,” that a candidate to appointment to a commission had an alcohol problem?
“Sometimes, you have to be careful about things like this,” he said. “It could come back to bite the person later.”
Lisa McGraw, public affairs manager for the Michigan Press Association, called the move away from video recordings and the limited information in minutes “troubling.”
“Obviously, we want people to know what is going on,” she said, “and we think these are important parts of informing the public.”
This is the third time since August that a rollback of transparency efforts has come to light.
Last week, the commission ended video recording of its biweekly meetings.
The decision was based on the expense of replacing the equipment and software to run it, officials said. But Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, a former commissioner. and pushed for the addition of the cameras. He said the commission had failed to explore an opportunity to partner with the city to record and broadcast the meetings. The city is eligible for money from the cable franchise fee and that could pay for new equipment, he argued.
Commissioners attempted last summer to circumvent the Open Meetings Act to discuss troubling audit findings related to the county treasurer. That post is held by Democrat Eric Schertzing.
At the time, Grebner defended the actions.
“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.”