May 6 2016 01:35 PM

City Pulse seeks open process for selecting Dunnings’ replacement

FRIDAY, May 6 — Monday’s scheduled closed-door meeting of Ingham County’s Circuit Court judges to begin the process of selecting an interim county prosecutor would violate the state’s Open Meetings Act, City Pulse informed Chief Judge Janelle Lawless today.

“Any meetings of the judges of the Ingham County Circuit Court in filling this vacancy are governed by the OMA, and must be conducted publicly,” a letter written on behalf of City Pulse by attorney Robin Luce-Hermann said. Luce-Hermann, who also represents the Michigan Press Association, specializes in the Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts.

Lawless said Tuesday that the purpose of the meeting is to determine the process that will be used in replacing Stuart Dunnings III, who resigned effective July 2. An interim prosecutor will serve until Jan. 1, when the winner in the Nov. 8 general election will be sworn in for a four-year term.

Under state law, a county’s Circuit judges are required to select an interim prosecutor.

Lawless declined to comment on the letter, which was delivered this morning to her office in the Veterans Memorial Courthouse in Lansing.

The letter cited a 1984 Appeals Court ruling on picking an interim Menominee County treasurer. Three public officials — the county clerk, prosecutor and probate judge — conducted the selection process in secret.

The ruling said: “The fact that the three members held other positions was essentially irrelevant because, while on the committee, they were voting members of a group that empowered by statute to exercise government authority.”

While the judiciary branch is exempt from the Open Meetings Act, the contention of City Pulse is that the exemption is not intended to apply when judges are making a decision as a government body.

Lawless had first declined to disclose the seven applicants for the position. However, on Wednesday, she released the names. The day before, City Pulse informed her that the Menominee County ruling indicated that the process is governed by the Open Meetings Act.

While releasing the names, Lawless maintained the judicial panel could meet in private. She cited the judicial branch’s exemption from OMA , which she said the Supreme Court had confirmed in a communication to her.

Lawless left the door open for the possibility that the judges will agree to open the process to the public. She said the views of the candidates will be taken into consideration.

Only one of those candidates, former state Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing, said she supports an open process. Others said they would leave it up to the judges.

“We hope the judges will decide to open the process to the public from the beginning,” said City Pulse publisher Berl Schwartz. “Even if the judges are right that they are exempt from the Open Meetings Act — which we do not believe — there is still a choice. And the right choice is to be transparent.”