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Holland Township blocking public access in manager search

By Sydney Smith/The Holland Sentinel • Feb 7, 2018 at 3:00 PM

HOLLAND TWP. — Holland Township officials plan to keep the search and interview process for the position of township manager closed to the public until a recommendation on who will fill the position is made to the board of trustees.

The move appears to be in violation of the Open Meetings Act, which allows citizens to know what their government is doing by requiring public bodies to conduct nearly all business in an open meeting.

Thirty-two applications have been submitted for the position, which is being vacated by Manager Don Komejan after his May retirement. Supervisor Terry Nienhuis said out of those applications, six people were interviewed privately, and now two finalists remain.

The final interviews with the selection committee are also planned to take place in private. Nienhuis declined to share the names of the two finalists. There will be no public announcement of the candidates before the search committee makes a recommendation as early as next week to the Township Board of Trustees, with the intent to finish the process by the end of the month, he said.

According to the Open Meetings Act, a closed session can take place to review the contents of an application for employment to a public office only if requested by the candidate. However, “all interviews by a public body for employment or appointment shall be held in an open meeting.”

“In the regular business of the township, we conduct a lot of interviews with prospective employees and we don’t generally do that in a public setting,” Nienhuis said when asked about the Open Meetings Act. “If there was such a stipulation, we certainly would want to follow it.”

He also said both candidates requested privacy as they are both employed and “have concerns about the word getting out at this particular point in time.”

Holland Township attorney Ron Bultje said via email he has not been involved in the search/interview process, and that he would need to give opinions on it to the township before publicly opining on the process.

Holland Township’s process differs from that of the City of Holland, which also is in the midst of a search for a manager. An event on Feb. 15 will allow the public to meet the candidates, ask them questions and provide feedback. The city made the finalists’ names public this week.

Municipalities do not have a legal obligation to initiate the publicizing of candidates’ names or application information; however, application materials considered in a meeting by a public body are subject to the Freedom of Information Act, according to the Michigan Press Association. The Sentinel has submitted FOIA requests for this information regarding the Holland and Holland Township manager searches.

Though the township is using a search committee, that committee has been given the authority to select finalists; this requires that committee to comply with the Open Meetings Act, even though it might not necessarily be a quorum — or minimum number of members present — of the public body, according to the OMA. There is also a prohibition on deliberately forming a sub-quorum in order to avoid the OMA.

The township manager position will pay between $110,000 and $140,000 a year. The role is of the township’s chief administrative official, responsible for implementing policies, developing and administering the annual operating budget and capital improvement plan, and managing operational and project improvement contracts, among other things.

Holland city attorney Ron Vanderveen reiterated the Open Meetings Act when asked what the process would be for interviewing the city’s finalists: The interviews, by law, must be done in public meetings. Interviews with Holland’s search committee take place Feb. 15.

“The OMA says if the applicant requests in writing the committee that’s doing the review can meet in a closed session to discuss the application (only at the request of the applicant), but the interviews have to be done in public,” Vanderveen told The Sentinel.

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