It’s long been common knowledge that televised Warren City Council meetings provide the same sort of high-quality entertainment found on The Jerry Springer Show. OK, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration. After all, News Hits hasn’t seen the Warren Council debate the merits of sibling love affairs (although, to be fair, we could have missed that episode). But you get the idea: When the council convenes, there’s a good chance that a whole lot of trash talkin’ will be going on. And we don’t mean discussion of municipal solid waste issues.
Now, in his infinite wisdom, Mayor Mark A. Steenbergh has decided to curtail the number of times a month residents of his burg can get their jollies by tuning into the big show, decreeing that broadcast of said meetings shall be limited to the two nights a month they occur.
Until two weeks ago, when the mayor first pulled the plug, the meetings had also been shown at various other times throughout the month. But Warren’s city charter, we’re told, grants the mayor say-so over when the council meetings are aired. Steenbergh wielded that awesome power two weeks ago when he issued an edict limiting broadcasts to the council’s live performance on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month at 8 p.m. on Comcast’s Channel 5 in Warren. Fortunately for those who don’t have TiVo or can’t figure out how to program their VCRs, videotapes of the meetings are also available at Warren’s Miller Public Library.
Attempting to justify the cutback in broadcasts, Deputy Mayor Mike Greiner tells News Hits that the “circus atmosphere” prevailing at the meetings could lead to costly lawsuits.
“If we were sued for slander under these circumstances, this would come directly out of the pockets of the taxpayer,” Greiner says.
“If we rebroadcast something, the city could become liable — that’s slander per se.” Insults and innuendo, he adds, are the order of the day at most of the meetings. Technically, “it’s endorsing by rebroadcasting.”
Council members, for the most part, are livid. They say assertions that the meetings are somehow grounds for lawsuits represent a thinly disguised contempt the mayor has for council — and a lack of respect for good government.
“That really limits us in providing a transparency in government,” Council Vice President Mary Kamp says. “They’re eroding the whole idea of open government.”
Steenbergh’s administration, she says, is attempting to turn Warren city government into a “dictatorship.”
Council President James Fouts is likewise displeased. “Many of us had been trying to get them to replay the meetings more often,” he says. Legal concerns, he adds, are “just a reason to shut us off — they’ve never been able to show anything else other than censorship … they will do anything to muzzle their critics.”
Fouts acknowledges that council meetings can be host to, ahem, vigorous debates, but adds that this is emblematic of any healthy democracy. Fouts likens Warren City Council meetings to the heated, yet lively exchanges that flourish in Britain’s Parliament. “It may not be pretty — but that’s what democracy is all about,” he says.
Herschel Fink, a Detroit attorney who specializes in media law, says that if the city charter allows the mayor to cease rebroadcasting the meetings, then he is free to do so. “But don’t hide behind a specious legal opinion that is wrong,” he says.
So long as the speech in question pertains to city affairs, Fink says, it is protected under the Michigan Open Meetings Act, and that rebroadcasting the meetings exposes the city to no additional legal liability.
In other words, Steenbergh’s justification is a red herring.
“At least be honest with the citizens of Warren,” Fink says.Send comments to [email protected]