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Detroit Study Team Told by Judge to Stop Closed Meetings

A Michigan judge ordered a review team appointed by the governor to study Detroit’s finances to stop meeting in private.

Ingham County Circuit Court Judge William Collette today issued a temporary restraining order after a union official claimed the closed-door sessions violated Michigan’s open-meetings law. The financial review team is considering whether Michigan’s largest city needs an emergency manager.

The review team “flies in the face of the Open-Meetings Act,” Collette said today in issuing the order.

The panel is “more than an advisory committee,” Collette said at a hearing in state court in Mason, Michigan. It has “a right to review records. They have the right to issue subpoenas, and they have the right to require people” to talk, he said. This “goes far beyond public advisory power,” he said.

Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, a Republican, appointed the 10-member group in December after a preliminary study by the state treasurer found the city was in “probable financial stress.”

If the panel declares a financial emergency, the governor may appoint an emergency manager with sweeping powers to fire employees, sell assets, void union contracts and assume authority over the mayor and city council.

Robert Davis, an official of a union that represents city employees, sued Snyder, the state treasurer and the review team, contending the team is required under Michigan law to hold meetings open to the public.

Open-Meetings Law

Davis said the review team also violated the open-meetings law by failing to keep minutes of a Jan. 10 closed session.

The “review team is not a public body as defined under the Open-Meetings Act,” the defendants said in a court filing Feb. 3. “A review team essentially performs background work.”

Terry Stanton, a spokesman for the Michigan Treasury Department, said the injunction “does not stop the review team process.” The ruling “simply means that review team meetings must be open, unless or until the court rules otherwise,” Stanton said.

The review team doesn’t have any meetings scheduled, Stanton said in an e-mail, adding that the Treasury Department hasn’t decided whether to appeal or take other action.

“This is a victory for open government and democracy,” Andrew Paterson, a lawyer for Davis, staff representative of the American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees, said today.

Paterson said he will file for a declaratory judgment, asking the judge to find that the actions of the review team before today violated the open-meetings law. This would void anything the panel has already done, Paterson said in an interview.

Union Concessions

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing and unions representing a majority of city employees last week reached a tentative accord on concessions aimed at avoiding a state takeover. Bing and Snyder have said they want to avoid an emergency manager for Michigan’s largest city.

The mayor and Detroit’s police and firefighters unions continue to negotiate over concessions. Bing has called for a 10 percent wage cut.

The case is Davis v. City of Detroit Financial Review Team, 12-112-CZ, Circuit Court, Ingham County, Michigan (Mason).

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