Agenda switch irks meeting regulars Howell council may shift closed session schedule

Staff Writer

By kathy baratta

Agenda switch irks
meeting regulars
Howell council
may shift closed
session schedule

A proposed change in the way the Howell Town-ship Council holds its private executive sessions is not sitting well with at least two residents who have been fixtures at council meetings for years.

Council members introduced an ordinance July 16 that would suspend public participation at the council meetings after the public address portion of the agenda. At that point, council members would retire to executive session, before returning to public session some time later to complete the night’s agenda.

According to Councilwoman Kimberly Alvarez, council members want to take this action in order to give themselves the opportunity to discuss certain agenda items before votes are taken.

"Sometimes it’s the only time the council members get to talk and discuss certain litigation and personnel matters before making decisions," Alvarez said.

She said that since the council’s executive sessions usually last about 30 minutes, the proposal shouldn’t have much of an impact on the "12 or so regulars who are the only ones who usually stay until the end of the meetings anyway."

Alvarez said the council has no plans to put its executive session before the comments to the council by residents. In fact, she said, the executive session would follow the public address portion of the council meetings.

According to the Open Public Meetings Act, also known as the "Sunshine Law," that regulates how municipal bodies must conduct the town’s business, a governing body may only go into a session closed to the public in order to discuss personnel issues, property negotiations or matters of potential litigation.

Those reasons have been used and abused by the mayor and council, according to residents Carol Chirico and Tracey Kelly.

Chirico spoke on the council’s plan to shift the executive session from the end of the meeting to near the beginning. She said, "most people cannot stay here until 11 p.m."

Chirico questioned what she called the mayor and council’s abuse of the executive session privilege.

"In 1997 your own chosen deputy mayor said you voted on a dispersal of funds for the master plan," she said. "This very year you went in the back and voted to fire the township manager instead of bringing it out in public for a vote — illegal."

Regarding the alleged "deal making" between the council and the Howell Board of Education over a building swap, Chirico told the members of the governing body, "I don’t understand why you had to go in the back and discuss the swapping of buildings when it was well known as far as the public went."

Chirico went on to say she had since heard that the reason for the back room discussion was so that the situation could be engineered to have the school board pick up most of the tab.

"Even if that was the case, the tab is picked up by us, the citizens of Howell, and it should have been discussed with the public present," she said. "If you adhered to the Sunshine Law your meetings in the back room wouldn’t last as long, but as it is, leave them where they are, at the end of the meeting."

Kelly questioned what purpose was being served by changing the agenda schedule. She said the reason being given by township officials for the change — an effort to accommodate the schedules of certain council members who are constrained by commuter hours — doesn’t ring true.

"It doesn’t change the length of time of their closed sessions so what difference does it make when they hold it and what would changing it do for a council member who might be late?" she asked. "Isn’t he or she going to then be late for the closed session that is now going to be held at a time the public should be participating in the meeting?"

Kelly, the mother of four children, said it is sometimes a hardship for her to be able to attend council meetings. She said there are other residents like herself who have children or elderly relatives to care for who should not be made to wait "all hours" to observe their government in action as is their right.

Kelly said she sees the proposed change as a thinly veiled attempt on the part of the mayor and council to discourage people from participating and observing the governing body conduct municipal business.

Attempts to reach Mayor Timothy J. Konopka and other members of the council for comment were unsuccessful.