Investigation: Many absences, rule violations by West Michigan's regional entity

"Not having a quorum at a meeting bothers me no matter what I am attending. ...The whole point of having a meeting is not to waste everybody's time, but to get something done."

We're all expected to show up for our jobs, but in a 13 Watchdog investigation, we found some West Michigan leaders are not showing up for meetings they're supposed to attend.

GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. - A months-long investigation by the 13 Watchdog team found West Michigan's regional entity, the Grand Valley Metro Council, did not have enough people attending meetings to conduct legal business on two occasions.

We found that leaders admitted to violating the by-laws of the Metro Council 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.

The state's Open Meetings Act defines a meeting as a "convening of a public body at which a quorum is present for the purpose of deliberating toward or rendering a decision on a public policy."

Attorney General Bill Schuette published a handbook for government leaders interpreting the Open Meetings Act. In it, the Attorney General wrote, "Any substantive action taken in the absence of a quorum is invalid."

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."

Two meetings we evaluated on Aug. 6, 2015 and Aug. 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.

Vanderberg initially acknowledged the mistakes and agreed 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.

The Grand Valley Metro Council is a very important entity that is largely unknown to people in West Michigan.

At least $80 million 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.

Taxpayers in several jurisdictions across the area including the city of Grand Rapids are paying twice to be part of the organization. Dues are paid by local governments and county governments.

Despite the importance of the organization, we found excessive absences by some local leaders over several years. All members take an oath they will represent their communities on the Grand Valley Metro Council board.

"I believe Metro Council will function the best if we have the diversity of thought represented by all of our members to attend as much as they can," Vanderberg said.

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.

We went to get answers from all four communities.

Allendale Township Supervisor Jerry Alkema told us he's too busy with his own township's work to go to the meetings.

Tallmadge Township's Supervisor Toby Van Ess said he works part-time as the township's supervisor and has work conflicts when the meetings are held.

Ionia City Manager Jason Eppler didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

Caledonia Township leaders took responsibility for the absences.

"Maybe that's criticism of us that we should be more active," Caledonia Township Treasurer Richard Robertson said.

Robertson told us despite being the township being part of the Metro Council since Feb. 16, 2000, nobody has been assigned to go to the meetings.

"You're asking the questions, so maybe we need to drill down and if we're going to be members, we need to assign somebody to be in attendance," Robertson 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.

We asked Vanderberg if there was a provision in the by-laws that could be exercised to change members if they don't show up or to force local governments to fill unfilled positions.

"Good question and I really can't answer that," Vanderberg said. "We would need legal counsel opinion on it."

Brenda McNabb-Stange drives nearly an hour, one way, from Hastings to Grand Rapids to attend the meetings. She has perfect attendance the past three years. We asked her if she thought it was odd some never showed up.

"I don't think I ever noticed somebody that didn't show up," McNabb-Stange said. "There were a number of people I didn't know because of that."

McNabb-Stange is there to represent Hastings and there because she wants to carry on a tradition set by late Hastings Mayor Bob May who, she says, set a standard.

Mayor May fought cancer for years late in his life and was unable to drive. Yet, he asked McNabb-Stange to drive him to Metro Council board meetings.

"He was committed to his job and to the city," McNabb-Stange said. "It kind of rubs on you."

We asked McNabb-Stange about our investigation.

"Not having a quorum at a meeting bothers me no matter what I am attending," McNabb-Stange said. "Because the whole point of having a meeting is not to waste everybody's time but to get something done."

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 Aug. 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.

"It's disappointing," Sparta Village Manager Julius Suchy said. "Obviously this is something that needs to be addressed and we'll be reaching out to the Metro Council to see where we go from here."

Grand Valley Metro Council attorney Jim Brown indicated in a letter provided to WZZM 13 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.

During this investigation, several have pointed to the area's largest city, Grand Rapids, as a factor in contributing to the quorum problem.

Grand Rapids gets three spots on the board because of its size and we found the city has never had all three members show up in the last three years, even though the meetings are mostly in Grand Rapids.

All three members failed to show up for the August 2015 meeting and two of the three didn't show up for the August 2014 meeting.

Overall, Grand Rapids has a 26 percent attendance rate in the past two years.

The city released a statement Tuesday through it's spokesman Steve Guitar:

"The City and Mayor Bliss are committed to the Grand Valley Metro Council and the important role it plays in bringing together leaders from local municipalities to work on regional issues. The Metro Council’s spirit of collaboration is a model for our community. Mayor Bliss began serving on the Metro Council in February, and she has been working to fill the City’s other two seats on the board. One City of Grand Rapids representative was appointed last month, and the other representative will be appointed this month. The Mayor looks forward to continuing to work with the Metro Council on issues that impact our communities."

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.

After an initial interview with Vanderberg last week, he told us within the last 24 hours that 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."

We prompted Vanderberg that his statement seems to contradict former Attorney General Cox's opinion and he responded by e-mail.

"We have provided you with extensive information on this issue and the Attorney General opinion language does not change our position," Vanderberg said. "Attorney General opinions are binding on state agencies but not on others but do provide a valuable guideline most of the time."

We'll be at Thursday’s Metro Council meeting to see how many show up and to bring you any reaction to our report.

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