The City of East Lansing will host a closed-to-the-public meeting this week to teach members of the City’s boards and commissions about the public’s right to open government.
The meeting is set for Thursday, October 29, at 7 p.m., and will be held on Zoom.
According to the message sent out to those invited, “Since this training may include Attorney-Client privileged communication, it is intended for board and commission members only and will not be recorded or posted as a public meeting.”
By ELi’s count, the closed-session meeting invitation was extended to upwards of 200 people who serve on everything from East Lansing’s Arts Commission to the City’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
According to the emailed invitation, obtained by ELi as a tip, Attorney Anne Seurynck of Foster Swift will be conducting the training.
Seurynck has not responded to inquiries from ELi about what kind of “attorney-client privileged communication” might be conveyed in front 200 citizens and dozens of City staff members but could not safely be heard by the rest of the populace.
City Manager George Lahanas has arranged this meeting to try to bring City staff and citizens serving on East Lansing government panels up to speed on Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Like many public-service media organizations, ELi tracks violations of open government laws and pushes for disclosure of information the public has the right to see.
ELi recently pressed City Council to commit to asking staff to make available on public agendas anything that the Council and boards/commissions are seeing before or during meetings, so that the public can review the same material and weigh in during public comment before decisions are made.
Council members Lisa Babcock and Dana Watson and Mayor Aaron Stephens reacted positively to ELi’s request, with Watson noting that she herself has often felt she’s getting material too late.
ELi has tracked responses to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the City, often finding that the City delays providing materials requested under the claim that it needs more time to locate the documents.
In just one example, in late 2018 the City claimed it needed three weeks to find a site plan for the proposed “Park Place” redevelopment from the Royal Properties/Vlahakis Development team. The claim “we need three weeks to find it and get it to you” occurred even while City Planning staff were actively working on the site plan to bring it forward to the Planning Commission. After we published about this, the site plan was provided.
A similar scenario just happened.
East Lansing’s “Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission” met for the first time on Oct. 12, 2020, and a reference was made to thirteen documents provided to the committee. None were provided to the public in association with the agenda.
As a result, ELi filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Oct. 14, to obtain the materials. The City was required by law to answer within five business days.
On Oct. 21, the City Clerk’s office answered by saying they needed more time to “search for and retrieve” the materials that had been given as an electronic packet to the committee ten days earlier. The Clerk indicated they would take the legally-permissible ten-business-day extension, meaning they might provide the materials as late as Nov. 4.
I wrote to Council and Chuck Grigsby, Chair of the Study Committee, to relay this claim of needing more time to “search for and retrieve” an electronic file containing 13 electronic documents. Within a couple of hours, the City released the material by simply providing a link to a drive.
In response to my messages, Council member Watson wrote back on Wednesday to indicate she has felt similar frustration about timely access: “As I begin to experience more Commissions as a liaison, we had a meeting where we did not have info that staff had. We did not have it until staff took a moment to disperse it to us live. Which meant the public would not see it until afterwards.”
“I majored in Communication for a reason and it’s important to me that communication loops be closed, especially when they are brought to attention,” wrote Watson.
Disclosures: The Secretary of ELi’s Board of Directors, Maysa Sitar, serves on East Lansing’s Census 2020 Complete Count Committee. ELi volunteer reporter and editor Chris Root serves on East Lansing’s Study Committee on an Independent Police Oversight Commission. Dreger’s spouse, Aron Sousa serves on East Lansing’s Historic District Commission. The Mayor Pro Tem, Jessy Gregg, worked for ELi as a reporter until she decided to run for Council. Dana Watson served as Chair of ELi’s Community Advisory Board (CAB) until she was appointed to Council. Thasin Sardar, who serves on our CAB, also serves on East Lansing’s Human Rights Commission and the Census Committee. Mike Krueger also serves on our CAB as well as on the City’s Downtown Development Authority, Brownfield Redevelopment Authority, and Downtown Management Board.
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