Clone of Residents file accusation of Open Meetings Act violation

By: April Lehmbeck | Advertiser Times | Published October 11, 2011

HARPER WOODS — Some residents have openly questioned the City Council’s recent decisions to take up some issues in closed session, issues that they feel may not fit under the rules of the Open Meetings Act.

A couple of residents took their concerns to the next level by dropping off a written complaint at the Harper Woods Police Department Sept. 29.

“Time and time again, you fight it. You fight it every step of the way,” said resident and local School Board Vice President David Kien concerning what he believes is a reluctance of the council to discuss issues in front of the residents.

Kien and City Council candidate Mary Paglia filed the complaint about alleged violations of the Open Meetings Act.

Kien told council last week that he thought it was sad that they had to go as far as making the written complaint.

“It’s a misdemeanor,” he said. “I’m going to pursue it. I’m going to pursue it civilly, and I’m going to pursue it criminally.”

The council has been questioned about closed-session issues that include discussing the city manager’s leave of absence and temporary replacement not in open session.

In that example, City Manager James Leidlein requested the closed session due to privacy matters of discussing health reasons behind his leave.

The written complaint includes eight incidents in which they feel the act may have been violated.

The written complaint also questions the council’s use of committees that discuss issues, but are not open to the public.

“These committees bring recommendations for action to the entire council; however, there is rarely if ever any discussion on these recommendations,” they stated in the written complaint.

Council member Vivian Sawicki expressed her frustration during the Oct. 3 meeting, even questioning school board members coming to city meetings on these issues instead of focusing on ways to improve a “shaky school district.”

“Not one thing that I’ve seen in any of our closed sessions have been violations of the Open Meetings Act,” she said, calling the accusation “bulls—t.”

She did apologize for her heated reaction during the meeting and raised a discussion that eventually led to the approval of a resolution that the council supported to oppose forcing schools to open their doors as full Schools of Choice districts.

Mayor Ken Poynter called her out of order for her language, but also contended with members of the audience talking out of order after Sawicki’s comments.

“Everybody get calm,” Poynter said to quiet the room.

He said that the council does listen to the advice of the city attorney on whether to conduct business in closed session on specific issues.

“Our attorney is delving into it further at our direction,” Poynter said. “There’s just a difference of opinion. That’s all there is. There’s no intent on our part to be withholding anything.”

Council member Cheryl Costantino said the council is listening when people raise concerns.

“We were very careful to stick to what we were supposed to talk about in that meeting,” she said. “We were within the confines of the Open Meetings Act.

“I thank you for bringing that to our attention,” Costantino added.

Costantino said she understands that people worry about what is being discussed in closed sessions, but “the fear is bigger than what is actually happening.”

“I don’t want you to think that we’re not listening to you,” she said. “I don’t think that you need to continue blowing this out of proportion at this time.”

Acting Police Chief James Burke said they referred the complaint to the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.

“There’s potential criminal charges. That’s why we ended up taking the report,” Burke said, adding that it isn’t something the local department would normally handle, so it was referred to the county.