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County votes in private

Commissioners sometimes use ‘poll votes’ between meetings

News File Photo The Alpena County Courthouse is seen.

ALPENA — Since the beginning of 2019, the Alpena County Board of Commissioners have utilized so-called “poll votes” 19 times to conduct government business outside of an open meeting.

Two of the other largest local municipalities, Alpena and Alpena Township, do not utilize the behind-the-scenes actions and conduct all votes during meetings open to the public.

Also known as a straw vote, a poll vote involves polling board members on their support or lack thereof on a matter in which action is needed so county staff can take action between meetings. The poll can be done via email, text, phone calls, or in person.

The board then discusses and gives a final vote in an open meeting.

The Open Meetings Act doesn’t address board voting requirements, but, “where board members use telephone calls or sub-quorum meetings to achieve the same intercommunication that could have been achieved in a full board or commission meeting, the members’ conduct is susceptible to ’round-the-horn’ decision-making, which achieves the same effect as if the entire board had met publicly and formally cast its votes,” the Michigan Attorney General’s Office says in its Open Meetings Act Handbook. “A ’round-the-horn’ process violates the OMA.”

The Alpena County Board of Commissioners meets on the last Tuesday of each month, unless a special meeting is called, which happens rarely.

Chairman Bob Adrian said poll votes are typically used as a reaction to business that is time-sensitive and must be handled before a regular meeting. Often, for example, the county receives short notice for grant application deadlines, and that requires quick action so the county doesn’t miss out on important revenue, he said.

Adrain said that, if the county had a county coordinator, essentially a full-time chief executive who could take action on his or her own, it could cut down on the number of required poll votes.

“There are times when things happen and they need attention immediately,” Adrian said. “I think it would be different if we had a county coordinator, because, for a lot of things, they could just make a decision. Sometimes, things pop up right after we have our meeting, and we can’t wait two weeks or a month to act.”

The Open Meetings Act allows boards to schedule special meetings if they give at least 18 hours’ notice to the public.

County Commissioner John Kozlowski said he isn’t a fan of poll votes, because commissioners may not have time to learn details on the issue or get questions answered. He said it is also not the most transparent way to do business, although there are times when the tactic is necessary.

“The biggest downfall is we don’t get discussion and debate, if we need it,” Kozlowski said. “We do get a chance to ask questions, but not as much time as I would like, sometimes.”

There are slight differences in the way local municipalities conduct meetings, how many times boards, councils, and commissions meet, and how business is handled outside of open session.

Alpena Township has a pair of meetings monthly, one of which is only held if needed. If there is no pressing business, the township informs the public of its cancellation.

Township Supervisor Nathan Skibbe said poll votes are not conducted and voting actions are put on hold until the public can participate.

“We host biweekly meetings, and, if the need arises, we will call special meetings,” he said. “We do that so the public is openly involved.”

Like the township board, the Alpena Municipal Council meets on the first and third Monday of each month. It also doesn’t utilize poll votes.

Mayor Matt Waligora said the city manager has the power to do many things to reduce the need for council votes on many smaller issues.

“In all my years, I do not recall having to once do a poll vote,” Waligora said. “I find it much more transparent to do it at a meeting than in an email vote. If it is pressing, and something beyond the ability of the city manager, I would call for a special meeting so we can take the action we need.”

Adrian said adding another meeting for county commissioners each month would be prudent. Because the poll votes don’t happen regularly and often involve simple, logistic matters, there may not be enough business to warrant meeting more than once, he said, but he didn’t rule out the idea of adding a meeting.

“We would have to dig deep into the idea and be sure it would be beneficial,” he said.

“It is something we can always look at,” Kozlowski said. “Maybe it is time to consider a second meeting. I surely wouldn’t be opposed to that.”

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