Oakland County officials push DIA for more transparency

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Oakland County officials are pushing for the Detroit Institute of Arts to open its meetings to the public and publish its proposed budget as long as the museum accepts taxpayer money.

A committee of Oakland County commissioners met Wednesday with DIA chair Gene Gargaro to make the demands at a time when the museum has come under fire for pushing a compensation package for its top executives totaling more than $600,000.

Commissioners Shelley Taub, R-Bloomfield Township, said although the museum is not run by elected officials, it still needs to answer to the public as long as it accepts money from a regional millage.

The millage, passed in 2012 in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties, accounts for 70 percent of the museum’s budget.

“We are paying the bills, the taxpayers,” Taub said. “Publish and let us know there the money is going.”

Taub initially asked for a resolution to send to the state Legislature. Commissioners Marcia Gershenson, D-West Bloomfield Township, proposed allowing the county art authorities and county officials meet to work out an agreement first.

“Instead of sending it to the state, let’s do it ourselves. Let’s open a line of communication and come up with an agreement,” she said. “No one is trying to hide anything. This is new for everybody. This is a conversation we should have with them.”

By unanimous vote, the commissioners approved the creation of a sub-committee to discuss the issues with the Oakland County art authority, the body that collects $11 million a year in taxes from Oakland County and sends it to the DIA.

The subcommittee is expected to create a plan, seek the full approval of the county commission and report its findings to the art authorities in Wayne and Macomb counties.

DIA officials have presented county art authorities with a compensation package of $625,185 for three top executives. Gargaro said a private fund would be used to pay all but $49,000 of the money, which is for raises. The raises would be paid with public funds from the millage.

The DIA must inform the counties of compensation decisions before they are enacted under an agreement with the three county art authorities. DIA leaders met with Macomb and Oakland officials last month and will meet with Wayne officials on Monday.

Gargaro said anything to enhance communication can only help.

“We have seven years left on the millage. I want these seven years to the best for Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties,” he said.

Asked whether he thought the privately-run, nonprofit should be subject to Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act, Gargaro said, “All the issues should be on the table.”

Meanwhile, two Michigan lawmakers are drafting legislation that would subject the DIA to the state Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act.

Bills being drafted by state Reps. Ken Goike and Jim Runestad would subject the DIA to the state laws in an effort to encourage more transparency from the museum.

The DIA receives about $23 million a year in taxpayer dollars from residents in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties.

But as a private, nonprofit organization, the DIA is not subject to so-called “sunshine” laws that cover public bodies.