Credit: David Wilson via Flickr
Crucial decisions happen every day in public government meetings. Whether voting to provide free busing to seniors and students, or choosing to implement facial recognition technology across a city, the actions of public officials affect everyone. The right for public access to the minutes of those meetings is enshrined in state law. Yet in Detroit, where the City Clerk’s office is responsible for keeping minutes, the process for obtaining them is excessively onerous.
A recent request took 12 days, a trip downtown and numerous phone calls just to find out what’s been happening at Detroit City Council. Though I ultimately received the minutes I requested, the process was not transparent nor the minutes easily accessible.
In response to the federal “Sunshine Act” of 1976, states enacted their own Open Meetings Acts, requiring the same level of transparency for all state and local government meetings as the Sunshine Act required for federal meetings. The first line of the introduction to Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (OMA) states:
“AN ACT to require certain meetings of certain public bodies to be open to the public; to require notice and the keeping of minutes of meetings; to provide for enforcement; to provide for invalidation of governmental decisions under certain circumstances; to provide penalties; and to repeal certain acts and parts of acts.”
The OMA requires each public body to keep minutes and states exactly what those minutes should contain. It requires officials to make proposed, or draft, minutes from each meeting available to the public within eight business days, and approved minutes must be available within five business days after they are approved.
Many municipalities provide copies of the minutes of public meetings online, within the times required by the Michigan Open Meetings Act. While the OMA doesn’t require that minutes be posted online, it’s more accessible than forcing requests to be made in person. It’s such standard practice that we at Detroit Documenters assumed a city as large as Detroit, with all the resources available to its City Clerk who has a legal obligation to provide these minutes, would make them easily accessible as well. We were wrong.
Detroit Documenters is a group of civically engaged citizens who are trained and paid to attend public meetings and report on what happens. Some will live-tweet a meeting in real time on Twitter, while others take written notes which are then edited and fact-checked by local media partners before we publish them online. What we discovered is that the notes and live tweets our Documenters create are the only online summarized version of what happens at Detroit City Council meetings.
This realization led us to wonder: if our notes and reporting on City Council meetings didn’t exist, what steps would a citizen have to go through to get a copy of the minutes? We decided we needed to know for ourselves, so I volunteered and began the long, arduous process. Here’s how that process went.
Step one: Figure out where to make the request
According to the FAQ on the website of the Detroit City Clerk, if the meeting took place from the year 2010 to the present, minutes “can be obtained from the Office of the City Clerk at 2 Woodward Ave., Room 200, Detroit between the hours of 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Friday. If the meeting took place from before 2010, they are available at the Archives office.”
I emailed CityClerkHelpDesk@detroitmi.gov, just to verify that minutes weren’t available somewhere online. The response I got from the Deputy City Clerk confirmed they were only available by request at their office, and stated they “are working on software to be able to post minutes online, which should be available soon.”
Step two: A visit to the Office of the City Clerk
Once I confirmed the protocol for obtaining the minutes, the only thing left to do was to try it for myself. After making my way through security at the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center, I found the City Clerk’s office on the second floor. A staff member greeted me and asked specifically what I was requesting. They found me the correct form and a pen, and I proceeded to fill out a Counter Request/Visitor Form where I requested minutes of the last 10 City Council Formal Sessions, listing the specific dates of the meetings.
I inquired if they could make the copies while I waited, and was informed that no, it will take them a while as they would need each of the different clerks who cover Formal Sessions to make copies of the minutes from the meetings they had covered. I was told they would be in touch when the minutes were ready. I wrote my email address on the form, though it didn’t ask for it, hoping not to have to return in person to pick them up. I handed them the form and watched as they stamped it with the date and time received, and gave me a copy for my records. This was a Thursday morning.
Step three: Emails, a missing request and many phone calls
Eight days later, I hadn’t received a phone call or email from the clerk’s office, so I emailed the Deputy City Clerk back to see if there was an update on my request. His email returned an out-of-office response stating the name and phone number of someone to contact at the Clerk’s office. I called, and was given the number of a Senior Assistant City Council Committee Clerk who is in charge of processing requests for City Council minutes. They answered my call, and I began describing the request I had made in person, eight days prior. As soon as I mentioned the request was for Formal Session minutes, they replied that they don’t produce those. They explained that they keep minutes of all the City Council Committee meetings, but not the Formal Sessions—which would put them in violation of the Open Meetings Act if it were true.
I asked them why no one mentioned that when I made the request, and they informed me that they didn’t know anything about my request as they had never received it. I was told it had never come across their desk. Even if it had, they repeated, they would be unable to fulfill it as minutes of Formal Sessions do not exist. A bit in disbelief, I thanked them and ended the call.
Later that afternoon I decided this needed corroboration. I called back to the number provided by the Deputy City Clerk’s out-of-office email reply, and explained that I was seeking to confirm the statement that minutes aren’t produced for Formal Sessions of the City Council. The person I spoke with suggested I call another Senior Assistant City Council Committee Clerk, who was the superior of the first one I spoke with.
This second clerk confirmed that minutes do not exist for Formal Sessions. We had a long and often confusing conversation, but they were earnest in trying to help me get the information I had requested. They asked what in particular I wanted to know, and offered to get me records of individual votes taken on specific agenda items. I explained how time consuming that would be, as I wished to see all votes taken, along with a record of who was present, across 10 different meetings. Ultimately, they mentioned that there were some internal documents they keep which would show the vote tallies and attendance across an entire meeting. They kindly offered to email them to me, and I thanked them for helping to find a solution.
Step four: Receive the minutes!
The following Tuesday they followed through, emailing nine meetings worth of documents to my inbox, and explaining the most recent meeting’s documents would arrive later that afternoon after that morning’s Formal Session had adjourned. The documents were labeled with “Dispo” for Disposition Agenda (though some even had the word “MINUTES” as a header), and were annotated copies of the agenda, providing notes on who was present, absent, a tally of votes on each voting item, and roll-call voting details where they applied. The final document was sent over later that afternoon as promised, in an email stating “Attached is your September 7th City Council Meeting Minutes.”
A blow to transparency
Fortunately for the public, minutes are actually kept and do exist. Less fortunately, there is a lack of clarity among staff members and the people responsible for fulfilling these requests about what information is available and how. If someone less familiar with the requirements of the Open Meetings Act had been told the minutes didn’t exist, we wonder if they might have just said “OK” and hung up the phone.
In total it took three hours of my time including travel and phone calls, $9 in parking and 12 days to get something many cities provide instantly for free online. Compare this to the one minute, on average, it took me to find and view City Council minutes online from 10 other municipalities in Michigan chosen at random, including Grand Rapids, Pontiac, Ferndale, Livonia and Dryden.
The point of this long-winded saga is that no one—no one—should have to jump through this many hoops to get a copy of minutes from a public meeting. Some recent critical decisions made by Detroit City Council include votes to protect the Detroit River from contaminants, to stiffen oversight of the lead ordinance in rental housing and to amend the towing ordinance.
Sure, the videos of every Detroit City Council meeting are posted online. But with two council members removed due to public corruption cases and two more under investigation, it’s crucial that Detroiters have easier access to what their representatives are doing and how they are voting.
Until the clerk’s office figures out how to provide minutes online, there is an easier way to keep up on the actions of your City Council. Follow Detroit Documenters on Twitter, read our reporting each week from Formal Sessions and subscribe to our newsletter to stay informed—or sign up to become a Documenter yourself.
Noah Kincade is a Detroit Documenters Field Coordinator and a member of the Outlier Media Freelance Journalist Network.