The 13 Watchdog team is getting immediate action and results one day after our investigation showed a public body in West Michigan didn't have enough board members to have two legal meetings.
We reported West Michigan's regional entity, the Grand Valley Metropolitan Council, violated its own by-laws that say "at least 1/2 of the total number of Members" are needed to conduct a legal meeting. Meeting minutes show votes were taken without a majority of the members present.
Two meetings we evaluated on August 6, 2015 and August 7, 2014, had 19 members participate and take votes. Ottawa County Administrator Al Vanderberg who chairs the GVMC board meetings confirmed there weren't enough people attending those meetings to create a legal quorum. At full strength, there are 49 members from 38 governmental units representing local communities in Kent, Barry, Ionia, Montcalm, Allegan and Ottawa counties and across West Michigan.
At Thursday's monthly meeting, 33 of 49 members were marked present for the meeting. Meeting minutes show that's the biggest turnout for a scheduled monthly board meeting for the GVMC since September of 2011. On average, over the last three years, we found 26 of 49 members were present.
The 13 Watchdog team found an embarrassing string of absences from leaders in four communities. Representatives from Tallmadge Township, Allendale Township, Caledonia Township and the city of Ionia have not attended Metro Council board meetings in close to three years. They've all missed 17 straight meetings according to minutes posted on the government's web site.
Representatives from all four of those jurisdictions were marked absent at Thursday's meeting as well.
GVMC board member and Gaines Township Supervisor Don Hilton said Thursday he was aware of our investigation and says the local entities should patrol the situation if members never show up.
"If they are not doing what their board or council expects them to do, it's up to that board and council to take action and replace that individual," Hilton said.
We found leaders from four other governments in our area missed nine straight meetings, missing every official vote last fiscal year. The list includes Grandville, Lowell, Rockford and Cedar Springs.
The Grand Valley Metro Council is a very important entity that is largely unknown to people in West Michigan. At least $80 million dollars of public money flows through the entity and taxpayers from all 38 units pay thousands of dollars in dues to be part of the group. The Metro Council focuses on environmental work, mapping and transportation planning. Numerous road projects are approved through the Metro Council and planners work to protect one of West Michigan's most valuable environmental resources, the Grand River.
Ottawa County Administrator and GVMC board chairman Al Vanderberg initially acknowledged the mistakes and agreed that the meetings that were conducted without a quorum were not legal.
"Absolutely it's a serious issue especially if you're conducting business on a day when you don't have a quorum," Vanderberg said.
"If we voted on something (during those meetings) that, technically, that vote would be invalid," Vanderberg said.
Vanderberg later clarified his comments to say he was mistaken when he said the GVMC did not hold "legal" meetings.
"A quorum is not required by law," Vanderberg wrote in an e-mail. "I agree that holding a meeting without a quorum could have legal consequences."
An Attorney General's opinion written by former Attorney General Mike Cox in 2009 indicated a board is not able to "render any decision in the absence of a quorum."
There were a couple of votes taken during the two meetings in question that were initially invalidated by GVMC leaders. The most difficult to figure out was the vote to add two new members. On August 6, 2015, the GVMC board voted on a resolution to allow Nelson Township and the Village of Sparta to become members.
Now those memberships and everything they've voted on in the past year are in question.
Grand Valley Metro Council attorney Jim Brown indicated in a letter provided to us that he believes Nelson Township and Sparta are full-fledged members. He thinks the courts would forgive the mistakes made on the quorums because other government mistakes have been forgiven by the courts in the past.
Ultimately going forward, Vanderberg laid out several changes that will immediately happen as a result of our investigation.
Vanderberg says he will now establish a quorum at the beginning of the meeting, announcing it and putting it in the minutes of the meeting. He asked members to sit at the table in the front of the board room instead of sitting in the crowd.
"It's just something we'll be more intentioned in the future to make absolutely sure we have it before a meeting starts," Vanderberg said.
Vanderberg also says he will send notifications to jurisdictions that have chronic absences requesting better attendance.