Opposition silenced at regents meeting

Daily News Editor
Published July 22, 2007

At the University Board of Regents meeting on June 21, five speakers from the general public were each allotted five minutes to comment on the final phase of the $226 million Michigan Stadium renovation project, which was approved minutes later.

Despite heavy opposition to the stadium renovation plans - which are currently the subject of a lawsuit filed against the University by the Paralyzed Veterans of America - all five remaining speaking slots for the stadium topic were filled by supporters of the project.

But the public display of support for such a controversial topic was no coincidence.

In a phone interview two weeks ago, Bruce Madej, a spokesman for the athletic department, admitted that he called University alum Jeff Cohen days before the meeting's agenda became available to the public on June 18. Madej said he asked Cohen to sign up for the speakers list, knowing he would comment in favor of the renovations to Michigan Stadium. Madej said he did not contact anyone else to obtain a spot on the speakers list.

But other employees from the athletic department did.

Ross School of Business Prof. James Reece, who was also able to secure a position on the speakers list, said that he knew the stadium topic would be voted on at the meeting because someone from the Athletic Development office called him two to three weeks beforehand. He would not specifically name the person who did so.

"He asked if I would be willing to (speak) and I readily agreed," Reece said.

The Athletic Department's Development Director, Joe Parker, said he knew some of the speakers personally because they were members of the Victors Club - a program where donors to the Athletic Department can accumulate "priority points" and receive benefits like tickets to road games and prime parking spots based on the size of their contributions. Reece said he was a member of the Victors Club.

Parker refused to comment on whether he was involved in recruiting public commentators.

Wheelchair-user Mark Pascoe, who was the first speaker to sign up, said he had spoken with Parker and other individuals in the Athletic Department on the phone on several occasions. He said the individuals he spoke with in the department suggested signing up for the speakers list as "something you could do if you had views."

"I have accessibility challenges and I haven't had any problems, so I talked to Bill Martin and before I knew it I was speaking," he said.

Univeristy alum John Leppiaho, who also spoke at the meeting, said he knew the topic would be voted on weeks before the meeting's agenda was released, but declined to comment further.

Through the Freedom Of Information Act, The Michigan Daily obtained on July 18 the written requests to address the Board of Regents at the June meeting. The requests showed that after the meeting's agenda was published, three requests to speak in opposition of the stadium project were filed, but were denied because all slots were filled.

The FOIA document also revealed that four of the five people who spoke in favor of the stadium renovations submitted requests within one day of each other.

"The vice president and secretary of the University does not make exceptions to the first-come, first-serve policy and no one receives special privileges when it comes to signing up for public comments," University spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said in an email.

Since the June meeting, many people who were in attendance have commented on the speakers list proceedings.

"I thought they could have handled the speakers list a little better," said Michigan Student Assembly Vice President Mohammad Dar. "I mean, even we don't do anything that sketchy."

Save the Big House spokesman John Pollack, who vocally opposes the Athletic Department's plans to renovate Michigan Stadium, was outraged when his request to address the Regents was denied a day after the agenda came out.

"One would think that on a big project the University would welcome vigorous debate and public comment," he said. "The University does not want public input on its governance."