Clawson Settles Lawsuit, Makes Steps Towards More Transparency
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Feb. 9, 2020)
Clawson, MI – Transparency might seem like a simple thing, but making it happen at a local government level takes hard conversations, trials and errors, changes in habits and culture, and sometimes even a lawsuit. Clawson, a town of just under 12,000 that dubs itself “the little city with the big heart,” is in the midst of such changes.
Recently elected Mayor Reese Scripture has been leading the charge for change. Prior to running for Mayor she filed a lawsuit against the city for Open Meetings Act (OMA) violations, centered mainly on the departure of former City Manager Mark Pollock as well as a variety of topics that were discussed inappropriately in closed session.
With the lawsuit still in the court system, Scripture won the election against Mayor Deb Wooley with 61.33% of the votes. Kathy Phillips and Louis Sampson also were voted in. Phillips previously had served eight years on the council.
They, along with council members Susan Moffit and Mayor Pro Tem Paula Millan, are navigating both administrative changes and the process of setting policies to avoid the problems of the past.
An example arose even in her first meeting as Mayor of Clawson, when Reese Scripture found herself in a tough position as she and council were tasked with appointing the Mayor Pro Tem. Historically, the position was filled, as outlined in the City Charter, by a secret ballot vote.
Scripture, at the time still in the midst of a lawsuit against the city over Open Meetings Act violations by the previous administration, thought (correctly) that the procedure was wrong. Yet the City Attorney insisted, stating that the secret ballot had been used the year before.
After the meeting, Scripture found the appropriate law, and had the appointment process re-done in a public way at the next meeting.
Scripture found it to be a “learning moment,” and a chance to demonstrate that as areas come up where more transparency is needed, she and others on council can make changes and do things right.
“Our local government is made of people, and people make mistakes. The difference is that when you know better, you fix what was wrong and you do better moving forward.”
Scripture says she’s not a person with political aspirations, but a resident who saw problems and felt called to help correct them. After filing the lawsuit, she felt the City still was not responding. So she ran for Mayor in the Nov. 2019 election.
Scripture’s lawsuit, filed in Jan. of 2019, outlined a pattern of alleged OMA violations, including…..
~A closed session under “attorney/client privilege” where there was no attorney or legal opinions present.
~Closed sessions with topics that should have been discussed in public such as planning department restructuring, operational activities and goals for city departments, promotion of recycling, staff training, informational materials for residents, and road maintenance.
~ A March 12, 2018 meeting was held “purportedly for the purposed of evaluating the City Manager/Finance Director.” Later in the year other meetings would be held regarding the City Manager, Mark Pollack, and at the Nov. 20 city council meeting, the council approved a separation agreement.
~ On May 22, an “informational study session workshop” was held to discuss replacing the City Planner. “On information and belief, council deliberately scheduled this meeting to conflict with the Planning Commission’s regularly-scheduled meeting in order to avoid any challenge or input from the Planning Commissioners,” the lawsuit states.
~At the June 5 meeting, council went into closed session and made a decision on the new city planner. At June 19’s regularly scheduled council meeting the new planner was introduced even before members voted to approve their contract. Scripture soon after submitted a FOIA regarding the process, and the City then decided to set up an RFP for planning services.
After the suit was already filed, Scripture also learned that the former mayor had instructed the City Manager to hire a digital detective to do an audit on the City’s email system after city emails made their way onto social media. The City Manager at the time was Erin Irwin, who was hired after Pollock and has since resigned. Irwin said Mayor Wooley had come to him with orders to hire the firm and spend up to $5,000, but not to tell anybody about it. The audit did not find any evidence of hacking or inappropriate access.
The lawsuit was settled soon after she took office, with the City of Clawson paying $18,000 in attorney fees and agreeing to several changes, including:
~Creating a set of standardized policies and procedures for new and returning council members.
~Orientation to how city government operates, introduction to actual city departments and staff, and essential city functions.
~Requirement that new and returning council members attend training through Michigan Municipal League or equivalent, including the requirements of the OMA, FOIA, and other applicable statutes.
~Establish a line item in the budget for training.
~Create ethics ordinance and whistleblower policy.
“It always made me sad to take the extreme step of filing a law suit against my own city,” Scripture said. “I was ignored when I pointed out the rules of the Open Meetings Act were being violated and ignored when I expressed concerns on some acts of questionable ethics, so I felt I had no choice but to take that next step. But, with the changes to Council brought by the election, along with the resignation of the former City Attorney, I think all parties agreed, the best thing for the City was to end the suit.
“The rules under which public bodies operate can be confusing and take effort to learn – and well-intentioned people will make mistakes. That is why everything I asked for revolved around mandatory council training and adopting robust ethical policies so we all understand our role under the charter, the rules under which public bodies operate, and incorporating an expectation of high ethical standards into our ordinances and policies. Not just for the current council but future elected and appointed officials.”
The beginnings of those requirements are now coming to fruition. Last week City Council met to discuss the ethics ordinance and whistleblower policy, which will be presented at an upcoming regular council meeting after being reviewed by the city attorney.
The City will also be hosting training for council members and those on boards and commissions regarding the OMA and FOIA later this month.
Moving forward, the mayor and fellow council members are looking at how to bring more residents into the decision making process.
“Clawson has never built a framework for high level community engagement,” Scripture said. “Citizen advisory groups are a tool for community engagement and they are common in many municipalities. They are a great way to get more done and help inform Council in governance decisions. Getting that framework in place is one of my personal goals, and I hope I can get support from other council members and staff.
“We have a lot of smart people in this town with a healthy variety of perspectives. I’d love to see the first citizen advisory group be dedicated to looking at ways Clawson can promote sustainability ad resilience wherever feasible,” she said. Another possibility is a Youth Advisory Council, an effort that has been led by Clawson resident Lisa Ball, who has put together a proposal for council to consider.
“Our future should be driven by the our residents and people who have invested in Clawson, so it only makes sense to find more ways to involve them in mapping that future,” Scripture said.