The teams that reviewed the finances of Detroit and Flint weren't subject to the state's Open Meetings Act, the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in a decision that could allow future panels to act without holding public hearings.
Lower court judges in a trio of cases had ruled that the review teams must meet the requirements of the Open Meetings Act. But the Court of Appeals, which heard arguments earlier this month, said Tuesday that neither the financial review teams nor state Treasurer Andy Dillon, acting in his executive capacity or as a "one-man committee" of the review team, was a public body under the act.
However, the three-judge panel decided contempt charges could be brought against Dillon and the Detroit financial review team if they disobeyed Ingham County Circuit Court Judge William Collette's order not to meet in violation of the Open Meetings Act. It said Collette's opinion was valid until the appeals court ruling, even if the decision overturned Collette's finding.
The review in Flint led to the appointment of emergency manager Michael Brown in November. In Detroit, city and state officials reached a major agreement in March on tackling finances without an emergency manager.
Highland Park activist Robert Davis, who filed one of two suits brought against Dillon, the Detroit financial review team and Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, said he planned to ask the Michigan Supreme Court for an "immediate and expedited review" of the part of the appeals court ruling that said the review teams aren't subject to the Open Meetings Act.
He also said he'll ask legislators to change the emergency manager law to make any meeting by a financial review team open to the public, just in case he loses in court.
"Here you have a group of individuals appointed by the governor discussing the most important issue that's going to affect that local unit of government. Why would it not be open?" Davis said. "The Legislature should look at this and take an affirmative step to say, `You know what? We want a transparent government.'"
State Treasury spokesman Terry Stanton said in a statement that the agency was pleased with the ruling.
"It supports the Department of Treasury's long-standing position that financial review teams are not public bodies and are not subject to the Open Meetings Act," he said.
Stanton didn't comment on the portion of the ruling that sent the case back to the Ingham County Circuit Court on Davis' motion for civil contempt against Dillon and the Detroit financial review team.
Flint's emergency manager was temporarily removed after Ingham County Circuit Judge Rosemarie Aquilina ruled the Flint financial review team had to hold open meetings. He was reinstated after the Court of Appeals granted a motion allowing Brown to resume his work to straighten out Flint's finances while it heard an emergency appeal of Aquilina's ruling.
In Detroit, before the agreement that avoided the appointment of an emergency manager, the financial review team held a raucous public meeting. It was heavily attended by critics unhappy with a deal that would give any amount of control over the city's financial actions to non-elected officials.
Opponents of the emergency manager law are trying to repeal it through a ballot measure. The measure failed to get enough votes from the state Board of Canvassers to go before voters in November because of questions over whether the type size on petitions was large enough to meet legal requirements. The matter is now before the Court of Appeals.
Emergency managers are in place in Detroit, Highland Park and Muskegon Heights public schools, and the cities of Benton Harbor, Flint, Pontiac and Ecorse.
Follow Kathy Barks Hoffman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/kathybhoffman .