Both a lawsuit and a legislative resolution are trying to open university board meetings in Michigan

MICHIGAN — Efforts to make public university governing boards subject to the Open Meetings Act are underway in Michigan, with a lawsuit going through the courts in parallel with a proposed legislative resolution attempting to change the state constitution.

The bill, House Joint Resolution “O”, seeks to make all meetings of the governing boards of Michigan universities open to the public, rather than simply “formal sessions.” Currently, a meeting that is not classified as formal does not have to be open.

The proposed resolution, which made it out of committee in the House, would have to pass both the Michigan House and Senate by a margin of a two-thirds vote. If passed 60 days before a general election (which are held in November every even numbered year), the resolution would be put on the ballot. Michigan voters would then have to pass the ballot initiative by a majority. After 45 days, the approved ballot initiative would become part of the state constitution.

“The reason is why I proposed it is because I can’t stand government secrecy,” said Rep. Martin Howrylak, a Republican. “The business of the governing body — whether it’s the city of Detroit or the University of Michigan — should be transparent and open, and because of Article VIII of the Michigan constitution, the universities have the right to be opaque.”

The University of Michigan argued that the proposal addressed a problem that does not exist, and that existing measures to provide transparency are effective. Michigan is one of three states that grant public universities constitutional autonomy.

“The transparency this proposal seeks to address is achieved through a variety of means, including the formal meetings of the governing boards,” said Rick Fitzgerald, a spokesman for the University of Michigan. “That transparency is balanced with the practical necessities of providing oversight to a multibillion-dollar enterprise. The amendment is a solution in search of a problem that has not been shown to exist.”

Still, student journalists at the University of Michigan and Michigan State University have written about frustrations with the formal meetings, saying that trustees oftentimes already have discussed and determined how they will vote before public comments are voiced.

Even if the resolution is passed, Josh Thall, a reporter for Michigan State’s The State News expressed concern that Michigan universities would still find ways to meet privately while appealing any legal decision.

“History tells us that the board members at these institutions would just continue trying to find loopholes and then drag the issue through the legal process as slowly as possible,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Detroit Free Press has an ongoing lawsuit that says the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents is in violation of the state open meetings law. Herschel Fink, legal counsel for the newspaper, said the Free Press filed a claim of appeal on June 29, after the Michigan Court of Claims ruled against the Free Press.

Fink said the Free Press is now going to file a “by pass application” to the Michigan Supreme Court, since “an intermediate appeal to the Court of Appeals would seem to be a waste of time and judicial resources.” The state Supreme Court is the only one that can revisit its 1999 ruling, he said. In that decision, the court ruled that public universities are not subject to the state’s open meetings law.

The Free Press will have to file the application within 42 days of having filed the claim of appeal, Fink said.

“Meanwhile, we are proceeding to encourage the Michigan legislature to pass a proposed constitutional amendment which would resolve the issue definitively,” Fink said.

Contact staff writer David Lim by email or at 202-974-6317.