There won't be public comments at the special Regents meeting – is that allowed?
After the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents deadlocked in a 4-4 vote on the 2020-2021 budget proposal at their June 25 meeting, University President Mark Schlissel called a special Board of Regents meeting to take place on June 29 to “discuss the University of Michigan budget.” However, the special meeting will not have a public comment portion, as confirmed to The Daily by University Vice President and Secretary Sally Churchill.
The budget proposed at the June 25 meeting — which included a 1.9 percent increase in tuition and a $50 COVID-19 student fee — failed to pass. Students have criticized the University for trying to increase tuition, claiming their learning experiences will not be the same with online classes and more students are now struggling financially due to the recession sparked by the pandemic. A petition calling for the University to lower tuition in light of COVID-19 has garnered 3,492 signatures, as of Sunday night.
At the Regents meeting last Thursday, three public commenters spoke against a potential tuition increase in advance of the budget vote. Rackham student Hayden Jackson, Central Student Government Assembly representative, said he thinks the public commenters may have influenced the four Regents who voted against the budget.
“There is a clear cause and effect there,” Jackson said. “A lot of times we’re kind of like, ‘Oh, well our legislators don’t care about our public opinion and just kind of sit there on their phones,’ but it appeared to do something in this last meeting.”
Public Policy senior Damian Chessare tweeted his disappointment with the decision to hold a meeting without a public comments portion.
Today, the President called a budget meeting w/o public commentary for tomorrow night. This is the problem.
— Damian Chessare (@DChessare) June 28, 2020
Michigan’s Open Meetings Act states public bodies must offer the public access to meetings and permit them to address the public body under MCL 15.263 (5). The same section notes that each public body gets to determine the specific rules for what that looks like.
“A person shall be permitted to address a meeting of a public body under rules established and recorded by the public body,” the act says.
Churchill told The Daily in an email that public comment only applies for regular monthly Board of Regents meetings.
“The public comment policy applies to regularly scheduled Board meetings,” Churchill said. “It does not apply to special meetings of the Board.”
While the Board of Regents’ public comments policy does say the Board will set aside time at their regular monthly meetings for attendees to comment, it does not mention special meetings such as the one that will take place on Monday night.
“As a part of their regular monthly meeting agenda, the Regents will set aside time for the purpose of enabling individuals to address the board,” the policy says.
In addition, the University Record stated in its announcement that the special meeting is “consistent with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive directive regarding public meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Section 1B of Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-129 states meetings must be in accordance with the Open Meetings Act, Section 3 MCL 15.623 revision, and allow two-way communication so everyone present can hear participants during the public comment portions of a meeting.
“A meeting of a public body held electronically must be conducted in a manner that permits two-way communication so that members of the public body can hear and be heard by other members of the public body and so that general public participants can hear members of the public body and can be heard by members of the public body and other participants during a public comment period,” the order says.
The order also notes that this public comment section may look different in a virtual meeting and may include someone reading out typed comments from audience members to the public body to “satisfy the requirement that members of the public can be heard by others during the meeting.”
Additionally, Section 1E states that notice of the meeting must include, “Detailed procedures by which the public may participate in the meeting remotely, including a telephone number, internet address, or both.”
The June 29 meeting agenda instructs the public to livestream the meeting by clicking a link on the University’s main website at the meeting time. While the meeting announcement included instructions for listening to the meeting, it did not lay out a procedure for participating in a public comment portion.
University Public Affairs did not respond to a request for comment at the time of publication.
While the state constitution requires public universities to hold “formal” sessions in public, universities are allowed to decide what constitutes a formal meeting. The Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in 2016 that the Board is also allowed to meet behind closed doors.
Because the Board could meet informally to “simply discuss” the budget, Jackson said he anticipates the board using the formal meeting Monday to pass a new budget.
“I don’t know why they would discuss it publicly if they weren’t planning on adopting it,” Jackson said. “I mean, it wouldn’t make sense to me. That would be quite a turn for a body that usually tries its best to thwart any public input.”
Section 1.03 of the Board’s bylaws states notice of special meetings will be given to each board member at least two days in advance. The public was informed of this meeting on June 28, and Regent Ron Weiser (R) told The Daily in a text all Regents “had more than the required notice.”
LSA senior Amytess Girgis told The Daily in a text she hopes the Regents have thoroughly thought about the ways the budget will impact students before they vote on it.
“I hope the quick turnaround gave the Regents enough time to properly consider all the ways they need to be supporting students in the final decision,” Girgis said.