Police were called to the Rock River Township Hall on Tuesday, Aug. 29, regarding a resident of the township refusing to leave the property. At the time of the incident, the Rock River Township Clerk Maria Strand was having a private meeting with an accountant contracted by the township for auditing purposes, required by state law. Strand confirmed that the township hall was being used as an office for the accountant to review financial files, including personnel files that would have private information regarding payroll.
The citizen refused to leave, questioning the term “closed meeting”, used by Strand and members of the Michigan State Police.
While there is no video of Strand using the phrase, the citizen did post a video on social media of the MSP troopers saying that Alger County Prosecutor Rob Steinhoff told them that it was a closed meeting.
The term “closed meeting” is a key designation in the Michigan Open Meetings Act (OMA), describing the situation and procedure for a public body to enter a closed session. There are significant violations for government entities that violate this act, and numerous precedents were set based on cases in the Upper Peninsula.
However, Steinhoff said that his actions were not based on OMA, but trespassing.
“I received a call from the Alger County Sheriff’s Office concerning a disturbance at the Rock River Township Hall. Reference was made to some sort of audit meeting. This was not a relevant part of the conversation. Reference was also made to an individual who was asked to leave the premises and was refusing. I inquired as to whether the individual was creating a disturbance; Sheriff’s personnel advised they were. My response was to proceed pursuant to statute regarding Disturbing the Peace and/or Trespass. I have no direct knowledge as to what happened after that,” Steinhoff wrote to the Beacon in an email release. “My involvement in the matter lasted less than a minute. At no time did I advise anyone as to the legality of any closed meetings or Township business. I did not then, nor do I now, take any position on Township operations. They have their own attorney and methods for citizens to redress grievances concerning their operation.”
According to the OMA, Strand’s meeting with a contracted employee of the township would not qualify as a meeting, citing the 2000 case Herald Co v Bay City.
“As used in the OMA, the term “public body” connotes a collective entity and does not include an individual government official,” reads the Michigan Open Meetings Act Handbook, a guide published by the Michigan Attorney General’s Office and was last updated in 2022.
The citizen eventually left and no charges were filed.