A Lack of Urgency: Special Sessions, Consent Agreements, and The Open Meetings Act
On Friday, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing tried to meet with City Council in a special session because, Bing said, the Law Department's potential legal action against the consent agreement could leave the city insolvent.
Council, however, pushed back the meeting until Monday because, under the Open Meetings Act, the public must receive 18 hours notice before a public body holds a special session.
“I am very fond of mayor Bing but I am not going to jail for him,” Council President Charles Pugh explained to WDIV.
Fair enough, the Open Meetings Act does require 18 hours notice. No one can blame Pugh or anyone else for attempting to follow the law.
But here’s the thing: Bing didn’t just wander up to the Council’s offices Friday morning and ask for a meeting. According to mayoral spokesperson Naomi Patton, the administration first requested the meeting with Council on Thursday afternoon.
That means it was conceivably possible for Council to meet with Team Bing on Friday afternoon while still complying with Open Meetings as well as the City Charter.
According to Detroit’s Charter: “Special meetings may be held at the call of the Mayor or four (4) or more City Council members and, whenever practicable, upon no less than twenty-four (24) hours notice to each member and to the public.”
According to David Whitaker with Council’s Research and Analysis Division, special meetings may only be called under certain serious circumstances. He says once the meeting notice is issued under the signature of the mayor or four Council members, the City Clerk then posts it in a public space in the Coleman Young Building and likely on the internet as well to comply with the Open Meetings Act’s public notice provision.
Perhaps it would have been a logistical fire drill to ensure proper notices were posted in time to hold a meeting Friday afternoon but, given the nature of the crisis, that task does appear to be doable. Certainly, a rushed meeting announcement seems preferable to waiting an additional 72 hours before meeting.
After all, even if city officials were enjoying a lovely June weekend, the clock continued to count down to a potential fiscal doomsday scenario.
Following the letter of the Open Meetings Act may have been a concern Friday, but Council’s application of the spirit of Open Meetings on Monday left much to be desired.
An agenda released over the weekend for today’s special meeting listed just one item beyond a public comment session, a motion to meet in closed session to discuss the consent decree case.
Closed sessions to discuss litigation are perfectly acceptable under Open Meetings, but if Detroit residents checked Council’s agenda online and assumed there wasn’t much happening in the open session today, they would have been wrong. What’s more, the meeting wasn’t streamed on the city’s website as is normally the case.
Even if you made your way down to city hall to watch your government in action, there’s no guarantee you would have made it inside.
Council met today, as they often do, in their Committee of the Whole room, which has limited public seating. Most days, that space is sufficient to accommodate the public. However, on a day when Council and Mayor Bing are discussing whether the city could potentially run out of money? The Committee of the Whole room isn't equipped to handle that crowd.
Some residents were essentially locked out this morning, left to mill around in the hall or watch the televised feed from the Council reception office.
The problem with using reception for overflow crowd is it only has seating for about a dozen people. A receptionist informed me this morning that, under no uncertain circumstances, was anyone allowed stand and watch the televised proceedings.
Council’s auditorium, just across the hall, has ample seating to more than accommodate today’s crowd, but it sat empty and dark this morning.
Open meetings, indeed.