By Joseph Lichterman, Daily News Editor
Published October 18, 2011
The University’s Board of Regents meeting last week was in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act, according to an attorney familiar with the act.
The board’s regular monthly meeting, held last Thursday at the University’s Flint campus, was scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., but the University announced that morning that the start time would be moved to 2 p.m. Under the Michigan Open Meetings Act, a public body must post “a public notice stating the date, time and place” of a rescheduled regular or special meeting at least 18 hours before it begins.
In an interview last week, University spokesman Rick Fitzgerald said the board made the decision to change the meeting’s start time on Thursday morning. The board posted a notice to the regents’ website and informed members of the University of Michigan-Flint community of the change, Fitzgerald said. The regents also notified select members of the media of the earlier start time via e-mail at about 9:20 a.m. Thursday.
Southfield, Mich.-based attorney Lisa Rycus Mikalonis, who specializes in media and intellectual property law, said the rescheduling was a “technical violation” of the law as the purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to ensure that people are able to participate in the meetings and voice their opinions about decisions the board makes.
“The public bodies are accountable to us,” Mikalonis said. “We live in a democracy, so the idea is that in order for a democracy to function, you need to have access to the decision-making processes of the public bodies.”
However, Fitzgerald said changing the time of the meeting was legal in the eyes of the University’s Office of the General Counsel because the starting time was the only detail changed.
“Our understanding is that for this particular situation, where just the starting time of the meeting was all that was changed, the Open Meetings Act is silent on that particular situation,” Fitzgerald said. “In our view, nothing else about the meeting changed — the location was the same, the day of the week was the same.”
Additionally, no one had signed up to speak before the board in the public comment section of the meeting, so the rescheduled start time didn’t prevent anyone from participating in the meeting, Fitzgerald said.
The regents allow up to 10 people to address the board about any topic during the public comment section at each meeting. Anyone wishing to speak must sign up with the Office of the Vice President and the University Secretary by 9 a.m. the day before the meeting.
Even if nobody participated in the public comment portion, Mikalonis said the public still deserved the opportunity to attend the meeting and voice their opinions about decisions the board made.
“If there had been people who were interested, and they didn’t plan to actually participate in the public comment section, they were still denied the opportunity of perhaps going to the meeting,” Mikalonis said. “So they can say there was no harm, no foul, but the rules are there for a reason.”
On Thursday, the regents approved the next phase of renovations to Yost Ice Arena, the addition of a cardiac catheterization laboratory in the new C.S. Mott Children’s and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital and the update of the University’s Central Campus Power Plant. The regents also approved the presentation of honorary degrees for four individuals — including New York Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson — at the Winter Commencement ceremony in December.
If a lawsuit is filed against the regents concerning the meeting time agenda, a judge may force the board to hold the meeting again in accordance with the Michigan Open Meetings Act, Mikalonis said.
“Say the Board of Regents made a decision that was in violation of the Open Meetings Act, and the court ruled there was a violation, then the remedy would be (to) re-hold the meeting and have the decision comply with all the requirements,” she said.
The last accusation of the board violating the Open Meetings Act was in February 2010 when University alum Robert Davis sued the regents over an alleged violation. Davis claimed that a closed-door meeting, held by the regents to discuss an NCAA investigation regarding whether or not the Michigan football program violated NCAA rules limiting the amount of time a team is allowed to practice, wasn’t in accordance with the law.
The University and Davis settled the case in June 2010 when the University agreed to pay $5,380, according to a settlement agreement acquired by AnnArbor.com.
Clarification: The headline on an earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that a meeting of the University's Board of Regents was in violation of Michigan's Open Meetings Act.