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Behind closed doors

MSU Board of Trustees' closed meeting could be in violation of the Michigan Open Meetings Act

December 7, 2011
Photo by Meagan Choi | and Summer Ballentine and Beau Hayhoe The State News

At MSU, a large concentration of power rests in the hands of eight people: the Board of Trustees.

From millions of dollars of upgrades for campus cafeterias and academic buildings to tuition increases and major personnel appointments, the publicly-elected officials make decisions that shape the future of the university.

Although they hold public meetings to formally pass those policies, some controversy surrounds the board’s use of closed work sessions the day before their public meetings — a practice that has been present for at least a quarter of a century. The trustees have said they once again will hold a closed work session today before Friday’s Board of Trustees meeting.

Members of the public, including students, are not invited or allowed to attend the closed sessions, trustees said.

Trustees said the informal work sessions are in compliance with Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, or OMA, which requires both deliberations and decisions on public issues to be held during public meetings.

“We wouldn’t be holding these update sessions contrary to law,” MSU Trustee Brian Breslin said.
Still, the closed work sessions might mean the discussions behind decisions remain untold, Executive Director of the Student Press Law Center Frank LoMonte said.

“It’s not enough to go out into public sessions and vote,” LoMonte said. “That’s not helpful to the public. The whole reason (some legislators) want meetings open is so people know what went into the decisions.”

Shutting doors
Although no decisions are made during the sessions, university-related business, such as the budget and tuition, have been discussed during closed sessions, said Bill Beekman, secretary to the MSU Board of Trustees and executive assistant to MSU President Lou Anna K. Simon.

The OMA requires all discussions leading toward a decision to be conducted in public, even if there is no intent for the discussions to lead to a decision at that time, according to an opinion by former Michigan Attorney General Frank Kelley.

Concerns have been raised that the board has discussed agenda items at the closed-door meetings.

Former Board of Trustees student liaison Kyle Dysarz said debates between trustees most likely occur during their closed session.

“Who knows what type of concerns and debates take place on Thursday,” Dysarz said. “It’s more of the administration controlling things that get out in public and don’t get out in public.”

MSU Trustee Melanie Foster referenced the Campus Master Plan — a long-term framework that outlines possible future locations for campus construction and development — as an issue that might be discussed at both the trustees’ work session today and the board’s public Friday meeting.

Breslin said during the informal sessions, trustees are updated on campus business not always discussed or voted on during the formal Friday meeting.

Most university-related business has the potential to be voted on in future meetings, with the exception of personnel matters and other unrelated issues, LoMonte said.

“If they’re discussing (something) that has no potential to come before them on a vote, conceivably they could close (a meeting),” LoMonte said. “(But) if it’s the business of the university system, all of that has the potential to come before them on a vote.”

When the matter of raising tuition rates for this fall was brought up for a vote during the June 17 meeting, no trustee offered any public comment or opposition. The increase passed unanimously.

Trustees might have discussed the proposed increase during an informal work session, when no student representatives were present, said ASMSU General Assembly Chairperson Steve Marino.

But Beekman denied those specific increases were ever discussed during an informal session.

Marino said student involvement is critical when discussing tuition, no matter in what capacity.

“I believe students should be a part of every conversation pertaining to tuition,” Marino said. “At the end of the day, students are the ones paying those bills.”

Dual conversations
Foster said informal work sessions are helpful to trustees because they enable members to spend more time discussing complex issues before formal meetings.

Most importantly, the work sessions give trustees the opportunity explore issues without the procedural constraints of a formal meeting, Beekman said.

“It allows for a frank conversation and a dialogue (to) take place,” Beekman said.

MSU Trustee Joel Ferguson said the closed meetings allow the board to be more efficient.

“I think it’s worked in the past, and we get more out of everyone,” Ferguson said. “(Board members) don’t have to defend statements (publicly).”

The Wayne State Board of Governors and the University of Michigan Board of Regents also both hold informal sessions closed to the public to discuss executive business.

Another public governing body, the East Lansing City Council, holds public work sessions as well as public council meetings.

Councilmember Kevin Beard said normally it’s clear what can and cannot be discussed in closed-door settings.

Although Beard said he would not comment on how the law relates to the Board of Trustees, he said the OMA is something council members follow closely.

“There’s a basic assumption that all your deliberations and votes are going to be held in a public setting,” he said. “It’s a pretty narrow set of situations which qualify for an executive session.”

Controlling comments
At public meetings, MSU community members and the public are given the chance to comment on issues related to the agenda following the approval of the previous meeting’s minutes and a report from Simon at the meeting’s start.

The public also can comment on issues not related to the agenda following comments from the trustees near the end of the meeting. Those who wish to speak must be approved prior to the meeting, and their comments are limited to three minutes in length. Time is kept on an on-screen clock.

The board currently works with four student liaisons – the chairperson of ASMSU’s General Assembly, the president of the Residence Halls Association, the president of the Council of Graduate Students and an at-large student representative.

The student liaisons attend the meetings alongside the board and meet with up to four trustees the morning prior to the public meetings to discuss student and board-related issues.

Unlike the trustees themselves, student liaisons are not allowed to vote at meetings and only are able to address the board at meetings if asked to do so by Simon, said Stefan Fletcher, a student liaison and the president of the Council of Graduate Students.

Student representatives also are not invited or allowed to attend the closed-door Thursday meetings. MSU Trustee Mitch Lyons said since he was appointed to office in January 2011, he’s never seen a student present during a Thursday work session.

Marino said individual trustees are willing to discuss issues and meet with students if requested, but the closed work sessions lack student representation and student input.

“I’m not asking for a vote,” Marino said. “(But) it would be nice to know … what’s the dissent. We deserve to at least be hearing what the discussion is.”

A matter of choice
No court has ruled that the MSU Board of Trustees is not in compliance with the OMA, and trustees have conferred with the General Counsel to make sure they are in compliance, Breslin said.

Still, opening the Thursday work sessions to the public would help increase university transparency, LoMonte said.

“Even if they don’t absolutely, 100 percent have to be open as a matter of law, they should open as a matter of good governance,” LoMonte said.

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