Flint, MI — Flint City Councilmembers Tonya Burns and Eric Mays say they believe the city’s ARPA Community Advisory Committee is violating Flint’s city charter and the Open Meetings Act.

The two councilmembers called a special meeting on June 28, 2023, for the purpose of talking about Flint’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds. Councilmembers Jerri Winfrey-Carter and Quincy Murphy were also present at the meeting.

“It has come to our attention that Mr. Neeley has appointed what we call an illegal, unlawful twelve-member advisory committee,” Mays said during the meeting.

He noted Flint’s city charter dictates that an advisory committee in charge of taking care of city business is illegal unless approved by the city council.

“Appointments shall be made by the Mayor with the approval of the City Council,” the charter reads in Article 6, which pertains to “multiple member bodies.”

For her part, Burns said that the committee also violates the Open Meetings Act, citing that the committee has been meeting “secretly” at the Gloria Coles Flint Public Library.

“Those things have not been posted. They’re in violation of the Open Meetings Act. Any multi-member body is supposed to make sure . . . that you post the meeting so the public can attend,” she said.

Under Article 6 of the city charter, “every multiple member body shall comply with the Open Meetings Act” and “all meetings of multiple member bodies of the City of Flint, including boards and commissions, called for the purpose of discussing business within the jurisdiction of the body, and all gatherings of a quorum or more members of the body at which businesses within the jurisdiction of the body is discussed, shall be public unless otherwise authorized by law.”

But Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley’s office and the legal department maintain that the ARPA Community Advisory Committee is not a multi-member body, and therefore it is not subject to the charter’s regulations around such bodies.

“The ARPA Community Advisory Committee has not been given any specific powers by ordinance or resolution to make decisions or take final, official actions,” wrote Flint Communications Director, Catie O’Neill in a June 29 email. “As a result, it is not a multi-member body as defined by the Charter, and is not subject to the Open Meetings Act. City Council is well aware of this fact, yet specific members continue to spread disinformation, to the detriment of our community.”

Burns told Flint Beat that she had been waiting on some legal opinions she requested about the committee and just got the responses last week, which is why she wanted to hold the special meeting this week.

One opinion was from City Attorney Bill Kim, which he noted was originally written at the request of Mays on Jan. 4 of this year.

“The proposed ARPA committee is like the ‘Blue Ribbon Task Force‘ and ‘Community Advisory Task Force‘ in that it is an advisory body that does not exercise any authority on behalf of the city,” Kim wrote in a June 16 email to Burns. “The proposed ARPA committee is not empowered to make any final decisions, and may only make recommendations to the Administration and City Council for their consideration.”

Burns sought another legal opinion from Lento Law Group, which provided her with its opinion on June 21.

John A. Fernandez, an attorney from the law group, wrote in his opinion that the Blue Ribbon Task Force and other similar bodies are considered Multiple Member Bodies (MMBs).

“It appears clear, given the totality of the circumstances, that the Blue Ribbon Task Force is a public multi-member group which purports to act in the exercise of official duties, and is thus, a MMB as defined under the Flint City Charter,” Fernandez wrote. “The only explanation I could proffer for why the City would refuse to acknowledge that the Blue Ribbon Task Force or similarly situated bodies are, in fact, MMBs, is because of the requirement under Art. 6-101(B)(7) of the Flint City Charter that MMBs are subject to the MI OMA [Open Meetings Act]. In other words, if Mayor Neely (sic), or any subsequent Mayor for that matter, wanted to establish a quasi-public body that could operate secretly — in other words, in closed session — then by definition it would have to not be a MMB. “

Burns declined to comment on what she plans to do about the differing responses, but she did say she’s concerned.

“When you look at the opinions, and there’s a deep concern for committee . . . how the committee was created, that it appears that it is a direct violation of the city charter,” she said. “And if we have, if it is a direct violation, the entire council . . . has a responsibility to make sure we make corrective action.”

Mays also would not speak directly about his plans but said he is talking to attorneys.

“We’ll see what happens,” he said.

The city initially announced the formation of the ARPA Community Advisory Committee on Dec. 6, 2022 saying the committee would “help evaluate ARPA community grant proposals and make award recommendations related to the $18 million available for community grants as part of the City of Flint’s overall allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funding. The committee’s recommendations will be reviewed by the Mayor and Flint City Council, who will make the final decision on funding awards.”

The city then confirmed the members of the advisory committee in a March 9, 2023, announcement. However, the details of exactly where and when those members would meet were not shared at the time.

The announcement instead noted that members would “serve terms of up to six months or less and will receive a stipend for their time.”

Sophia is Flint Beat's City Hall reporter. She joins the team after previously reporting for the Livingston Daily and the Lansing State Journal, along with some freelance work with The New York Times....