The Ann Arbor Chronicle filed suit against the Ann Arbor City Council earlier this month, accusing the council of violating the Michigan Open Meetings by holding a closed-door meeting regarding a medical marijuana moratorium.
The Michigan Open Meetings Act requires that the content of certain meetings of government bodies be available to the public.
According to Dave Askins, co-owner of the Ann Arbor Chronicle, the closed session on July 19 made it “impossible” for the public to know all of the discussion on the moratorium, adding that City Council didn’t give enough notice to prevent the suit.
“The suit had considerable merit, and I think it’s clear from the way that we documented the timeline, that led to the lawsuit,” Askins said. “We gave the City Attorney and the City Council every opportunity to remedy the situation in a way that would not have required a lawsuit.”
During an Aug. 5 open meeting, Council member Stephen Rapundalo (D–Ward 2) referred to a previous and private discussion about a medical marijuana moratorium. At this closed-door meeting in late July, the city attorney was present to discuss the moratorium.
The moratorium then appeared on the agenda of the public meeting without prior discussion between all council members, Askins said. The Council ended up passing the moratorium.
According to a column posted on the Ann Arbor Chronicle website last night, the publication sent a letter to city council and the city attorney on Aug. 11 asking that the council at their Aug. 19 meeting admit that the closed session wasn’t in compliance with the Open Meetings Act, abandon the moratorium the council previously approved, seek out public comment on the moratorium and take “appropriate action” on the proposal.
Both Rapundalo and City Attorney Steve Postema declined to comment on the recently filed suit.
Council member Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1) said that she and other members of the Council were caught off guard that the new moratorium was added to the agenda of the early August meeting.
According to Briere, Rapandulo said the moratorium was discussed in the closed session but later retracted the statement after gauging other council members’ confusion. Briere added that she was unaware of the moratorium’s origins and that the issue was not discussed in detail at the closed session.
“Members of council — myself included — were surprised that the moratorium existed, it was not something that we were expecting,” she said. “From a personal standpoint, I think it’s a terrible thing that anyone would have to file suit against the city. From a member of council standpoint, I would hate to think that Council or the city at any level fails to obey any open meetings act.”
Briere said in the future, she hopes the content of closed-door sessions are disclosed to the public after they have been concluded.
“I would hope that what there would be would be a consistent, clear cut understanding of why the council is going into closed session, what’s going to be accomplished in that closed session, what’s appropriate to discuss and what’s not appropriate to discuss in that closed session and that everyone knows those rules,” she said.
Dennis Hayes, a lawyer specializing in medicinal marijuana legislation, said the contents of the ordinance could have been the reason for the closed-door meeting, noting that medical marijuana is a touchy subject for the City Council.
“We have been butting heads with (the city attorney) from the get-go,” he said.
Hayes said the Council would not extend an invitation to him for a closed meeting even if the session focused on medical marijuana. He added that his versions of medical marijuana ordinances have never been allowed to exist on the City Council agenda and that the council has always had a “narrow” approach to dealing with the issue.
“They would rather have no relationship with medical marijuana—and we won’t let ‘em,” he said. “In this case, it was a disservice to everybody because you have to have an open discussion about medical marijuana.”
This isn’t the first time city council has been accused of violating the open meetings act. In Sept. 2009, the council banned electronic communication between council members during meetings in order to be more transparent, after council members were criticized for sending e-mails discussing city business and sometimes mocking speakers at the meetings.