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A rift has developed on the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, with a lone board member arguing committee meetings should be open to the public.

Police Commissioner Willie Burton made a motion during Thursday's board meeting to open all committee meetings to the public, because he said the current system of holding closed conferences violates the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

The motion — the third time Burton has moved to stop holding closed committee meetings — was not seconded.

During Thursday's board meeting, Burton had a placard next to his name bearing the word "Transparency."

"They're talking about board business in those committee meetings, so if they're not open to the public, the board is in violation of the Open Meetings Act," Burton told The Detroit News. "I'm just trying to be transparent to the people of the 5th District who voted for me."

A lawsuit filed in Wayne County Circuit Court also alleges the police board is violating the Open Meetings Act by barring the public from committee meetings, which are held on Wednesdays at Detroit Public Safety Headquarters.

During a hearing on the lawsuit Wednesday, Judge Daniel Hathaway ordered the board to record the committee meetings so he could review them in his chambers to determine whether the topics discussed should be open to the public.

The Detroit City Charter Section 7-802, which covers the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners, reads: “All meetings shall be held in accordance with the Michigan Open Meetings Act”.

Burton said that applies to committee meetings as well. "It says 'all meetings,'" he said.

Burton issued a press release Thursday complaining he was "shut down at the table on the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners on numerous occasions by Chairman Willie Bell. This madness must stop here, because when you shut down a commissioner, you disfranchise nearly 100,000 voters that live in the 5th District."

Bell insisted he isn't stifling Burton. "He had a concern, which he expressed, and made a motion, and the board didn't second his motion," Bell told The News. "That's not shutting anyone down."

The meetings in question include the budget committee, citizen complaints committee, legal affairs, public affairs, promotional appeals, disciplinary and personnel committees. 

"None of those are open to the public, and they're some pretty heavy committees," Burton said. "The people have a right to see what's being discussed in these meetings."

Bell disagreed. "He wants us to operate like the City Council, but we're not the City Council," he said. "It's unfortunate that Commissioner Burton keeps raising this issue, when the board has already rejected it. He's just trying to get media coverage."

Bell added: "While this matter is under litigation, we are not privileged to discuss it with the public."

The lawsuit was filed last week by community activist Robert Davis, on behalf of his nonprofit agency, A Felon's Crusade for Equality, Honesty and Truth.

The lawsuit said: "Despite being advised of their unlawful actions, defendants continue to violate the (Open Meetings Act) by convening and holding their weekly secret meeting on Wednesdays at 3 p.m. at the Detroit Police Department Headquarters."

Davis, a former Highland Park school board member who was convicted in 2014 of stealing $200,000 from the school district, told The News: "It's sad that you have individuals on the board who do not want full transparency. That makes you wonder: What are they hiding?"

The Board of Police Commissioners holds weekly meetings Thursdays at Public Safety Headquarters. Those meetings are open to the public. 

The board was created in 1974 by the City Charter in the wake of problems in the police department that culminated in the 1967 riot. The board was established to provide civilian oversight of the department.

The board was originally set up as a five-member body of mayoral appointees, although when the City Charter was revamped in 2012, the police board was expanded to 11 members — seven elected from each city district, and four appointed by the mayor.

ghunter@detroitnews.com
(313) 222-2134
Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN

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