Traverse City Record-Eagle. May 16, 2021.
It isn’t about the contents of a single document.
Sure, the parents, teachers, students and taxpayers whose interests are tied to Traverse City Area Public Schools would like to better understand the complaints — ones apparently contained in a letter presented in a closed-session meeting — that precipitated former Superintendent Ann Cardon’s sudden departure from the district in October 2019.
They, and we, would appreciate the opportunity to fully understand what compelled school trustees to fork over $180,000 to the school leader as they ushered her out the door — the same employee the elected panel unanimously praised as they hired her 78 days earlier.
What did we get for our money? Silence? Absolution from some liability? Or did the payment simply avert embarrassment for district officials?
More than 19 months later we still don’t know what was so important about that document. And that’s a problem.
But long ago, our legal battle against district officials’ gambit to hide public records took on infinitely more gravity than the closed-door shenanigans of a single school board in northern Michigan.
At the moment school trustees, and their lawyers, decided to appeal 13th Circuit Court Judge Kevin Elsenheimer’s declaration that they had erred in withholding the complaints from public disclosure, they made the case a referendum on the future of government transparency in Michigan.
Knowingly or not, TCAPS trustees and top administrators, in their effort to overturn Elsenheimer’s decision, launched an effort to rewrite Michigan’s transparency statutes. And not for the better.
Had they succeeded, elected officials statewide would’ve been granted license to hide public records from disclosure by simply carrying them into closed-session meetings and claiming they are part of the minutes of that obscured discussion. Contracts, settlements, land deals, personnel complaints, salary schedules — records to which the public has a right to inspect could be withheld.
We, and just about everyone who cares about government transparency in Michigan, breathed a sigh of relief Thursday when the Michigan Court of Appeals released its unanimous decision affirming Elsenheimer’s judgment. Thankfully, that published decision will become prevailing case law on the issue — that is if TCAPS officials don’t attempt to elevate the case to the Michigan Supreme Court.
But let’s be honest, our relief was in holding the line against yet another attack against government transparency in a state that regularly earns worst-in-the-nation ranking for public access to the inner workings of government. A state where lawmakers continue to refuse to install even a basic reforms to bring the legislature and the governor under the purview of transparency laws. A state where government agencies exploit cavernous loopholes in the Freedom of Information and Open Meetings acts to hide their actions from public view.
We also wouldn’t be at this juncture if not for support from both our corporate leadership and our community -- the latter which makes it clear, through their subscriptions, advertising and grant dollars, that they want accountable government.
In the past four weeks alone, Record-Eagle journalists have received invoices from both state and local officials demanding thousands of dollars for access to public records — invoices meant to discourage Michiganders from seeking records created and maintained with their tax dollars.
So, yes, we breathed a sigh of relief when Court of Appeals Chief Judge Christopher Murray during a recent hearing in the case said that TCAPS’ argument “makes no sense.”
But that relief was short-lived as we turned back to our work with the knowledge that this was not the first senseless attack on transparency in our state, and it surely won’t be the last.