City officials, press clash over Kirtland citizens committee

Commission Debate
(from left) Commissioner Gaylord, Mayor Pro-Tem Towne, and Mayor Grunch were three major players in a lengthy discussion at the Feb. 28 City Commission meeting (C. Faulknor/BC Gazette)
The Boyne City Commission engaged a lengthy discussion for nearly an hour on whether the newly formed Kirtland noise issue citizens committee meetings would be open to the public or held in private.

By Benjamin J. Gohs, Editor

The Boyne City Commission engaged a lengthy discussion for nearly an hour on whether the newly formed Kirtland noise issue citizens committee meetings would be open to the public or held in private.

The commission ultimately voted 3-2 to allow the committee’s organizational meeting, Wednesday Feb. 29, to be open to the public, but to let the committee decide the ultimate status of those meetings.

“Since the last city commission meeting on Feb. 14 we continue to monitor and document the operation at Kirtland facility. We did develop an RFP and distribute it to a number of firms that we identified as likely having the skill set that we need to submit a successful proposal to us,” said Boyne City Planning Director Scott McPherson. “The citizens committee has been established. It is a 10-member committee.
Tom Johnson, Bud Sheer, Kirk Jabara, Laurie Leaman, Brian Giem, Al Aown, Mike Hausler, Leon Tupper, Mike Lange and Tom Monley.

“I had talked with representatives from Kirtland and they indicated that they may have other people that can bring information to the committee and they would maybe substitute those committee members – so as long as they have three, we’ll be fine with that. But if they have someone else who can bring information and assets to the committee then that’s great.”

McPherson said he will be among several city staff members who will offer support to the citizens committee. Boyne City DDA/Main Street Executive Director Hugh Conklin and Boyne City Harbor Master Barb Brooks.

According to Boyne City Manager Michael Cain, nearly 25 people applied to be on the citizens committee, which totals 13 with the city staff members.

“As we looked at the people that submitted their applications we tried to come up with a balanced approach so that the committee isn’t too skewed one way or the other,” Cain said.

Cain said the committee should have some role in selecting the consultant the city is seeking to help solve the Kirtland noise issue.

Scott McPherson said there was a citizens committee meeting scheduled for 6 p.m. On Wednesday Feb. 29, in the Boyne District Library conference room.

Boyne City Mayor Ron Grunch asked if the meeting was open to the public or just to committee members.

Scott McPherson said the meeting was an organizational meeting for committee members only.

Boyne City Gazette Publisher Chris Faulknor told the Boyne City Commission that he felt the meeting should be open to the public since it was created by the city and had city staff members sitting on the committee.

Boyne City Commissioner Tom Neidhamer asked McPherson what the time-line was for potential consulting companies to respond to the city.

McPherson said March 12, was the deadline to submit the RFP and then those would be reviewed.

“Then, if there’s a selection process after that, if there’s one that’s viable, then (it will) be selected and then move forward,” McPherson said. “I can’t speak how long the study will take. I have no idea how long they will need to do that.”

McPherson said time was indicated as an important factor, but that no proposals had been submitted as of the evening of the Tuesday commission meeting.

Grunch asked McPherson if there would be room for members of the public if they were to show up at the meeting, and McPherson said he did not know.

Grunch said he thought the issue should be open to discussion.

“Our initial discussions with our city attorney have indicated that, based on the nature of this committee, that it does not require to be open to the public,” Cain said. “I think that’s a topic that, if the media has additional information, we would be glad to take a look at that.”
Cain said that may be something the citizens committee may want to look at as it organizes itself.

“Obviously this whole process needs to be open at certain points. I think the committee’s got to figure out how they want to operate,” he said.

Boyne City Commissioner Laura Sansom asked if minutes were going to be kept at the meeting, and was told that they would be, but it had not been discussed whether the meetings would be taped.

“I understand everybody’s desire with regards to open discussion, but of course we also want to have frank and open discussion amongst the committee members as well, too. Kirtland may be there with regards to information that may be confidential with regard to them,” Cain said. “We’ve got to find a balanced approach.”

He added, “As the commission knows I generally prefer to go on a scheme of openness – I’d rather defer those questions to the committee, let them work it and hash it out based on … input and guidance from our city attorney and other information that’s available as well.”

Cain said he thought Conklin would chair the committee.

“Hugh … is a professional mediator. Some of those skills may be necessary as we work our way through this process,” Cain said. “I’m open to suggestions. I think the committee should have input on all this process.”
He added, “But, I don’t think it would be beneficial to have somebody from one side or the other. I’d rather have somebody more on the neutral leading the discussion and make sure that everyone has a chance to comment.”

Neidhamer asked Grunch if the commission needed to decide whether the citizens committee meeting was to be closed to the public.

Grunch said the city attorney had already looked at the issue and determined it did not need to be open to the public, but that the city commission could discuss the matter further.

Cain said the citizens committee is merely an advisory committee and will not be making any decisions.

“There’s going to be some passions involved. I want to make sure the committee has the opportunities where they can basically get in a room, they can say whatever they need to say and it doesn’t taint the process going forward,” Cain said. “At some point, I would assume that, yeah, all the minutes should become available, and if we do record the meetings all those should become available.”

Cain said there may be advantages not to provide the information to the public until after the issue has been resolved.

“We basically turned this over to this committee to do some of this legwork for us as a fact-finding group and I’d like them to have the ability to do that,” Cain said. “If they decide amongst themselves, if they think … public input would be good, either all the way through it or at certain points during the process, I would look to them for communications on that.”

Sansom asked who has final say on who is hired as the consultant on the Kirtland noise issue.

Cain said ideally the committee, the city commission and the EDCLFA, since it is funding the consultant, may have final say.

The LDFA can spend money on the consultant without approval from the city commission.

Boyne City Commissioner Derek Gaylord concurred with the city manager that frank discussion will occur if the meetings are held privately as long as that is in compliance with the law.

According to Grunch, the city commission had already created the committee at the commission’s previous meeting, and technical no further action needed to be taken with regard to whether its meetings were held in public view or privately.

Faulknor told the commission he would be challenging the legality of holding the meeting in private with regard to the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

Cain said he is aware of the concerns with holding the meetings in private, and he is open to any information to the contrary of what the city’s attorney determined.

Boyne City resident John McCahan said he had issues with several of the committee members, wondering if they were employees of Kirtland Products and McPherson explained that the three people in question were either affected by the noise or had some expertise to lend to the situation.

Sansom asked how committee members were determined.
Cain said the geographic locations of people, their skill sets, their level of neutrality and experiences were taken into consideration, but also some planning commission members were included because, Cain said, the issue may go back before them at some point in time.

Gaylord asked who the neutral parties were on the committee. Cain said Sheer and Jabara were identified as “neutral” in addition to the city staff members.

“If anything, this committee might lean with one person or so towards the people that have concerns with regards to it,” Cain said. “But, overall, I think the committee is fairly well balanced.”

Boyne Area Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Baumann said this issue is already a really passionate issue.

“Do you really want to make it more controversial by leaving the press out?” Baumann said. “I just think you ought to think about that question. I know the advantages of being public versus the advantages of being private – I would like to think that, given a coin flip, you would come out in favor of public.”

He added, “There are stated reasons for not having a public hearing … but I haven’t heard under which of those reasons that this fits other than it lets them talk privately. Do you really want to add more fuel to the fire?”

Grunch asked the commission if they should refer the issue to the city manager to re-confirm the matter or to allow the meeting to be open to the public.

“One of my jobs is to keep the City of Boyne City out of trouble, I try to do that very cautiously,” Cain said. “All the points the press have are valid.”

Cain said the two questions before the board are whether they can and whether they should close the meetings.

Cain said there is definitely much interest in the issue, and it does concern the public.

“The reason I’m coming to you with this difficult topic is not to be secretive, but to make sure this committee has the best chance for success and the committee may decide they want to do that in an open forum,” Cain said. “I think they should have some input in making this decision.”

He added, “To necessarily have each discussion headlined over the front page of the newspaper may not help for a decision or community resolution of this issue.”
Commissioner Sansom said she had some concerns about running the meetings in closed session.

“Even after a meeting that’s closed, per se, a lot of these people are going to be talking to their friends and neighbors and what-not and the information may be skewed one way or the other,” she said.

Sansom asked if the committee couldn’t just hold its meetings in the open and then go into closed session for sensitive matters.

Cain said he would need to review that with civil counsel before answering that question.

Grunch said all the folks who volunteered for the citizens committee are appointed and not elected officials. And, while he does not want to put undue burden on the, he felt the meeting should be held in view of the public.

“I will base my decision on legal counsel opinion and staff opinion and, with all due respect, not on press opinion,” Neidhamer said. “I would follow staff recommendation and vote for a closed meeting.”

As a point of clarification, the city’s attorney did not recommend the meeting be held in closed session. The city’s legal counsel claims that the meeting may be held in private, not that it should be held in private.

“I certainly don’t want to create another controversy in the middle of another controversy,” Gaylord said. “That’s the last thing we need done.”

Gaylord said his formula for whether the meetings should be open or closed will be determined by what is best for the process the committee will undertake in helping to find solutions to the Kirtland noise issue.

“I’m all for a free and open press, absolutely,” he said. “If the law says that we can have them as a closed meeting and the attorney general or legal counsel have been consulted and that’s confirmed then we move into the ‘Should we?’” Gaylord said.

Neidhamer said there is a “clear, concrete” conclusion from the city’s legal counsel that the meetings can be held in private.

“We’ll have to verify that answer. If that is a position that the city attorney maintains, I anticipate we’ll probably have one or more challenges to that coming forward,” Cain said. “I agree with the comments they have made and I will encourage our legal representative to talk to their legal representative to hash this thing out.”

“He added, “I think we can, and if we find that we can’t, we won’t.”

McPherson said he didn’t see the harm in holding the organizational meeting in open.

Brooks said she had no opinion either way because she will merely be taking notes and organizing the meetings.

Conklin said he was not sure which way to proceed.
“We’re trying to solve a problem and it’s going to get, probably, sticky and it’s a complicated problem, and the thought of somebody sticking a microphone on the table and nobody knowing where those words are gonna end up, I think would make people very nervous about expressing any point of opinion and whether or not we’re going to find a solution,” Conklin said. “It seems to me that government faces difficult problems all the time and it’s done in private so you can solve a problem. I certainly appreciate the comments made by the press, but I think this is a problem that needs to be corrected and we need free and open conversation.”

He added, “We will be making no decision other than a recommendation. We’re not making any decision that’s bound by anything.”

Conklin said the serious problem that is facing the community is being distracted.

Grunch said by holding the organizational meeting open will show the concerned citizens that the involved parties are working to move forward.

Grunch motioned that the organizational meeting be open to the public. The motion was seconded by Sansom.

Neidhamer and Towne were the two “nay” votes on the matter.

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