Mich. lawmakers seek more transparency from DIA

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Two Michigan lawmakers are drafting legislation that would subject the Detroit Institute of Arts to the state Open Meetings Act and Freedom of Information Act.

Bills being drafted by state Reps. Ken Goike and Jim Runestad would put subject the Detroit Institute of Arts to state laws on transparency.

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, which is under fire again from public officials for plans to give its executives raises, bonuses and other compensation.

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.

“The taxpayers were asked to help this organization because it was struggling to stay open, but now it seems we were really asked to subsidize large raises for its top officials,” Goike, R-Ray Township, said in a statement.

“The DIA needs to be more transparent for the sake of Metro Detroit residents, so they can have a better understanding of what this organization is spending their tax dollars on. We’re paying a hefty price to keep the DIA afloat, and it has a responsibility to show that money is being put to good use, not simply to line the pockets of its high-ranking officials.”

Voters in the three counties approved a millage in 2012 to support the DIA.

“To use any taxpayer funds at this point to pay for providing hefty bonuses and raises to executives is a slap in the face to our taxpayers after the DIA pleaded poverty during Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings,” Runestad, R-White Lake, said in the statement. “And even though private funds are being used to feather the retirement nest of the outgoing director, it seems to be a continuation of the old financial shell game of moving money from this pocket to fund that pocket and sends the wrong message to people who pay taxes into the institute.”

DIA chairman Gene Gargaro said Thursday he believes the museum is already being open and transparent in its meetings with art authority members. He noted that elected county officials attend the DIA’s board meetings, which are closed to the public.

“I believe we are already doing the tenor and spirit of FOIA without being a part of it,” Gargaro said.

“I do believe we are improving from a transparency and communications standpoint. In that sense I don’t believe we need legislation to accomplish what we are already doing.”

The Michigan Open Meetings Act is intended to protect Michigan citizens’ right to know what goes on in government by requiring public bodies to conduct nearly all business at open meetings.

FOIA rules say individuals are entitled to full and complete information regarding the affairs of government and the official acts of those who represent them as public officials and public employees.

The News last week requested a copy of former DIA Director Graham Beal’s employment contract, which contained provisions for the housing loan and severance package. Gargaro declined to release the document but said he would answer questions on it.

Michael MacLaren, executive director of the Michigan Press Association, said any time taxpayer dollars are used in any way, the public is better served by knowing how those dollars are spent.

“That is the foundation of FOIA and OMA. It really boils down that,” he said. “Taxpayers ought to have access.”

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 compensation include a $285,000 retirement severance and forgiveness of a $155,832 housing loan for Beal, who left the museum June 30.

The compensation package for Beal and executives Annmarie Erickson and Robert Bowen covers fiscal years 2014 and 2015. It includes $135,000 combined in bonuses for all three and 3 percent raises for Erickson and Bowen.

The DIA must inform the counties of compensation decisions before they are enacted under an agreement with the three county art authorities. This is the first time the new terms have come into play. DIA leaders met with Macomb officials Aug. 17 and will meet with Wayne officials Sept. 14.

Oakland County commissioner John Scott, R-Waterford Township, is pursuing a resolution to get his colleagues to block the raises.

Late Wednesday, Scott's resolution was referred to the general government committee of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. Scott said he is asking Gargaro and members of the art authority to attend a Sept. 9 meeting to explain how bonus amounts were determined. He also supports subjecting the DIA to state transparency rules.

Elected officials in Oakland County said they were outraged at the museum’s decision to award $100,000 in bonuses to its top three executives in 2012, the same year Beal and Erickson appeared before county commissioners saying the museum was on the verge of financial collapse.

Months later, in August 2012, voters in Oakland, Wayne and Macomb counties approved the 0.10-millage regional tax, which accounts for 70 percent of the museum’s budget.

After a public firestorm and as Oakland County officials threatened to pull $11 million in funding, the museum board repaid $90,000 in bonus money awarded in 2013 — the first year public funds came into DIA coffers — with private donor funds.