While the monthly meetings of the University’s Board of Regents could be considered efficient, complaints have recently been surfacing that the University's governing body is abusing Michigan’s Open Meetings Act.
At the open and public meetings, held by the regents, members and executive officers address and pass new policies for the University and offer an opportunity for the public to share thoughts or concerns, as required by law. However, the regents rarely publicly disagree with one another at the meetings or even make statements for the record. Most discussions are assumed to occur behind closed doors and in informal sessions.
According to Section 3 of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, “all meetings of a public body shall be open to the public and shall be held in a place available to the general public.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 18, state Rep. Tom McMillin (R–Rochester Hills) held a legislative hearing before the Michigan House of Representatives Committee to listen to the public’s general concerns about the act.
Herschel Fink, one of the Detroit Free Press' legal counsel and a speaker at the hearing, stated publicly that the regents are “serial abusers of the Open Meetings Act.”
Fink called for a constitutional amendment to make clear that the regents, as well as the Board of Trustees at Michigan State University and the Board of Governors at Wayne State University, are bound by the Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act.
“The quote-unquote ‘formal monthly meetings’ are nearly perfunctory,” Fink said. “They simply rubber-stamp the regents’ work committees to which the public is not allowed to participate or be present.”
Fink is not the first to complain about the regents’ secrecy.
In 2010, University alum Robert Davis sued the regents for not having a public meeting when discussing an NCAA probe of the University’s football program.
At last month’s meeting, in which the board approved more than $510 million worth of campus renovations, announced the creation of the new administration position of associate vice president for enrollment management and the consideration of an endowment and naming of the head football coach position, there was little to no discussion of the proposals. The regents simply listened and voted in approval.
“There are a lot of unanimous votes on various items,” University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said in an interview with the Daily. “But there is, from time to time, discussion about items before there is a vote during the public session.”
The regents meet informally, separately from the formal monthly meetings, to discuss certain issues. These generally meetings include two or three regents and other University officials.
According to Frank LoMonte, the executive director of the Student Press Law Center, “there has to be a voting majority of the body, a quorum of the members, present in order for it to be an official meeting.”
Fitzgerald said there are two segments of public comments during the meetings. The most utilized public commentary segment is at the ends of meetings, when a limited number of speakers, who sign up in advance, can address the regents on any issue they want for five minutes.
The second, but not generally used, public portion of the meetings is at their beginning, when any member of the public can speak up about a proposal on a meeting’s agenda.
“There is always an opportunity for people to address the regents on anything that is on that meeting’s agenda before any of the voting takes place,” Fitzgerald said.
He said this time slot is always reserved, but rarely used.
LoMonte said the rarity of these early meeting dialogues is an example of the minimal engagement between the public and the regents.
“The places where people tend to complain are the places where the official meetings don’t seem very substantive,” LoMonte said.
The meeting agendas, with detailed proposal descriptions, are posted online the Monday prior to every monthly Thursday meeting. The minutes of every meeting are posted online for public review afterward.
“The process that the board operates under is well-established and well-grounded in the state law,” Fitzgerald said. “This has been an effective way to work and we believe it is compliant with the Open Meetings Act.”
In January’s special regents meeting, during which the board named University President-elect Mark Schlissel, new concerns about the regents’ secrecy were in regard to the presidential search process.
The formal meeting, when regents voted on the approval of the new president, was held open to the public. A 1999 Michigan Supreme Court decision allows the University — and all Michigan public universities — to conduct presidential searches in private.
A significant reason for keeping the search process private was that candidates do not want to jeopardize their job when the search is open, according to Regent Andrea Fischer Newman (R).
“Your pool is much broader and much bigger if you can keep the search process private,” Newman said in a January interview.