Detroit City Council, keep public meetings public


Detroit City Council got its first decision right as a restored governing body, but the way it went about it raises serious concerns about its commitment to running a transparent government.

Council members met for 16 hours behind closed doors Wednesday and Thursday to deliberate the fate of Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr. Under the state's emergency manager law, the council could have voted to boot Orr at the end of his 18-month term, which came Saturday.

Instead, they agreed unanimously to keep him on to complete the city's bankrputcy proceedings. Again, it was a smart move.

But the fact that the deliberations were cloaked in secrecy should bother Detroiters, who have a right to know how and why decisions are made.

The council went into closed session on the advice of City Attorney Butch Hollowell, who said because members were discussing a legal contract, the state's Open Meeting Act exempted them from holding the session in public.

And he's right that talks on the details of a legal contract are exempt from the act. But the dealmaking leading up to a vote is not.

It's a fine line, and open to a bit of interpretation. But it certainly appears there was plenty of back and forth bargaining in that room, since the council left it and immediately came into public session and, without any further discussion, took their unanimous vote. Given the steep divisions among members before the two days of deliberations began, it stretches credibility to think they were able to all come to the same place without considerable debate.

That part of the deliberations should have happened in public.

"What concerns us is the precedent this sets," said Michael McClaren, executive director of the Michigan Press Association. "If you can do it out in the open, there can't be any questions that something improper went on behind closed doors."

Public bodies in Michigan are increasingly disregarding the Open Meetings Act. The University of Michigan Board of Regents, for example, is being sued for doing so much of its general business in private sessions.

Transparency is essential to establishing trust in government. If blanks are left in the process, the public will fill them in, often with conspiracy theories.

As Detroit begins the post-bankruptcy era, residents must be certain their elected leaders are operating in their best interests.

The temptation for council to lock itself away from public scrutiny must be resisted. It may be the most convenient and risk-free method of doing the people's business, but it is not the right way.