An interesting thing happened last week.
A meeting was held at the Orion Township Hall regarding Michigan’s Iron Belle Trail and connecting the local Paint Creek and Polly Ann trails as part of it.
Based on the agenda, representatives from the local, county and state levels of government gathered to provide updates, do some brainstorming and a mapping exercise, and reach a consensus on the Iron Belle Trail route.
Who was invited?
Officials from Oxford Township and Village, Lake Orion, Orion Township, Oakland Township, the Polly Ann Trail and the Paint Creek Trail. Representatives from Oakland County, the Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Transportation and the Southeast Michigan Council of Governments were to take part as well.
At the last minute, someone asked Oxford Community Television (OCTV) to attend and videotape the meeting.
Full disclosure, it was my wife, Connie Miller, a cameraperson for OCTV since January, who was dispatched to film the festivities.
But that’s not why I’m writing this column. I would be opining about this topic no matter who the person behind the camera was because of what happened. Apparently some folks at the meeting didn’t wish to have their participation recorded for posterity and aired on public access TV.
“I had two groups come up to me and say, ‘We don’t really feel comfortable being televised,’” explained Orion Township Supervisor Chris Barnett in a phone chat with me.
The ones who objected, according to Barnett, said they wanted to have a “collaborative” and “frank” discussion, and they “weren’t told (ahead of time) this was going to be televised.”
“To be honest with you, if I would have known (ahead of time) that somebody wanted to film it, then it would have not been an issue,” Barnett noted. “It was just people were caught off guard and they were nervous about who they report to being upset that they were on film without knowing ahead of time.”
Ultimately, following an informal, show-of-hands poll, my wife was directed to shut off the camera after filming for a grand total of 3 minutes and 48 seconds.
In the video, you can actually see Oxford Township Trustee Elgin Nichols – who works for OCTV, but was attending the meeting as an elected official – looking at the camera and making a slashing motion across his throat.
Prior to that, Barnett is shown on the video telling the group, “Certainly, we don’t have anything to hide.” But he also says, “There might be some heated discussions.”
“I honestly, personally, don’t care, but I’m not going to put people on the spot that are here representing other groups that aren’t always on camera,” Barnett told the assembled officials.
Now, just to be clear, it does not appear there was any violation of the state Open Meetings Act (OMA) because, although a number of government officials were present, this was not a meeting of a particular public body.
Under the OMA, in effect since 1977, a public body is broadly defined as, “[A]ny state or local legislative or governing body, including a board, commission, committee, subcommittee, authority, or council, that is empowered by state constitution, statute, charter, ordinance, resolution, or rule to exercise governmental or proprietary authority or perform a governmental or proprietary function; a lessee of such a body performing an essential public purpose and function pursuant to the lease agreement.”
What convened was not a public body like a village council or a township board or even multi-community boards like the Polly Ann Trail Management Council and North Oakland Transportation Authority board.
It was simply a gathering of officials from various entities.
Also, it’s my understanding, from both Barnett and what I gleaned from the video, that none of the boards represented at this meeting had a quorum in attendance, so no potential OMA violation there.
On top of that, this was not the type of meeting that was posted, or required to be posted, so that members of the public could attend if they so desired.
The folks at this meeting were invited via an April 17 e-mail from a representative of Oakland County Economic Development and Community Affairs. This e-mail was sent to “key stakeholders to discuss the Iron Belle Trail — Biking Route: Paint Creek to Polly Ann Trail Connector and other non-motorized projects currently underway or being planned in northeastern Oakland County.”
“There were 16 people that RSVPed to the meeting and 30 people showed up,” Barnett told me. “Which was okay. We let them stay. We didn’t ask anybody to leave. We didn’t have anything to hide. We just had people there that didn’t feel comfortable being televised.”
It all sounds innocent enough.
I mean we’re talking about trails – the least important facet of government.
Now before all you trail-lovers get your way-too-tight bicycle shorts in a bunch, let’s remember, the most important things government handles are police, fire, schools, roads, water and sewer – the necessities.
Trails are fine and dandy, but they are most certainly a luxury, not a necessity. Society can function without them. No one calls 9-1-1 to find the nearest trail or expects a fresh, clean stream of trail to come gushing out of their faucet or hopes their local trails are good enough to get their kid into Harvard.
Anyway, by now, you must be wondering one thing – what’s your point?
My point is government at all levels is supposed to be open and accountable. But it certainly doesn’t appear to be open and accountable when officials don’t want their meetings recorded and aired for the public to see.
I’m not saying the officials at this big trail powwow had something to hide or they were doing anything wrong.
But, in politics, perception is reality.
It just doesn’t look good whenever government officials don’t want television cameras or reporters in the room. It looks even worse when they actively send them away.
You automatically wonder why. You wonder what they don’t want the public to see or hear. You wonder what they don’t want us to know. You wonder what they’re doing and what they’re planning. You wonder what they don’t want recorded and preserved.
Closed doors naturally breed suspicion and secrecy, not trust and transparency.
I’m sure that wasn’t the intent in this case, but again, perception is reality.
Fortunately, Jim Newell, editor of the Lake Orion Review, got there after OCTV left and covered the meeting. That’s something I’m sure many of the government folks there – especially those from the state and county – didn’t know. Score one for the Fourth Estate.
I, for one, want our officials’ “frank” and “heated” discussions captured on tape because that’s part of having open government.
Contrary to what some control-freak officials think, public meetings are not supposed to be scripted performances where boards vote unanimously on everything and there’s little or no discussion because it was all worked out ahead of time behind the scenes.
Meetings should contain genuine debate and honest dissent. Meetings should be messy at times because life is messy and only robots and idiots agree on everything.
In the end, OCTV should have been allowed to stay and do its job, which is to help keep the public informed and provide a video record of our officials’ words and deeds.
If some government folks are uncomfortable with that, well, that’s just too bad. Whether you’re hired, appointed or elected, you work for the taxpayers and if we want to know what you’re up to, that’s our right.
If you don’t like it, go get a job in the private sector.