More Open Meetings Act violations alleged in Shiawassee County

Attorney says the problem of working behind closed doors runs deep
Published: Jul. 27, 2021 at 5:45 PM EDT
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SHIAWASSEE COUNTY, Mich. (WJRT) - The recent controversy over large COVID-19 bonuses paid to Shiawassee County officials isn’t the Board of Commissioners’ first allegations with Open Meetings Act violations.

Attorney Phil Ellison of Hemlock filed a lawsuit last week, alleging that commissioners improperly discussed the bonuses in closed session. The Open Meetings Act dictates that all discussion of spending tax dollars happen in open session.

Ellison said he has filed multiple lawsuits over alleged open meetings violations in recent years. He believes the problem runs even deeper.

“There has been a well known, commonly known aspect of Shiawassee County government that acts basically in the backroom -- what I call with a wink and a nod,” Ellison said. “Decisions are made actually before the board gets there because they’re talking to each other.”

Nearly two years ago, resident Nichole Ruggiero, who is the plaintiff in the latest lawsuit over the COVID-19 bonuses, sued the county’s treasurer selection committee consisting of the county clerk, prosecutor and a probate judge.

“They interviewed people -- five of them -- to select as potential candidates for a replacement of the outgoing treasurer,” Ellison said. “They conducted the entire interviews in closed session behind closed doors. You’re not allowed to do that under the Open Meetings Act. You must conduct those kinds of discussions and interviews publicly.”

Commissioner Marlene Webster recalls a similar problem with appointing someone to fill a vacant county commissioner seat. She said three people came and applied in person for that position at a board meeting, but one of the commissioners said they had already discussed amongst themselves who they were going to hire.

That meeting wasn’t recorded, according to Webster, in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

“They basically rubber stamped everything they talked about behind closed doors, so the public doesn’t really get to know firsthand what’s going on or what their thinking is,” Ellison said.

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