Flint, MI– A circuit court judge has ruled that the Flint City Council’s decision to silence the president for 30 days violates the Open Meetings Act.
City Council President Kate Fields, who will now be allowed to preside over Monday’s council meeting, said she feels that “justice has been served.”
“For me, it was really about the principle of the thing. It wasn’t about Kate Fields. It was about the fact that you can’t have, on a body like council, a small political clique just try to silence somebody just because they view you as the opposite of their politics,” she said.
On Sept. 28, the city council voted 5-2 to keep Fields from speaking in meetings for 30 days, although she would still be allowed to vote. The council members who voted in favor of this punishment (Councilman Eric Mays, Councilwoman Monica Galloway, Councilwoman Jerri Winfrey-Carter, Councilman Herbert Winfrey, and Councilman Maurice Davis), said Fields was not properly recognizing “points of order” and appeals, although she disagrees.
A couple weeks later, after attempting to speak in meetings and getting denied, Fields filed a lawsuit with the Genesee County Circuit Court against the council. She requested the court review their decision to silence her for 30 days.
Judge Joseph Farah granted Fields temporary injunctive relief which allowed her to speak at two meetings, before issuing a final decision on Oct. 25.
At the court hearing, Attorney John F. Szczubelek, representing Fields, argued that the council’s vote to punish her was a violation of the Open Meetings Act. He also said that the council’s “spontaneous” decision did not follow proper protocols– due process, notice, a hearing, etc.
Attorney Christopher M. Trebilcock, representing the Flint City Council, argued that the punishment did not violate the Open Meetings Act as Fields was still allowed to vote, and thus “be heard.” He also said that the council has the right to punish its members.
Judge Farah, who said he had to “wipe out” about 20 cases that were scheduled for Monday morning in order to hear this case before the council meeting tonight, did not hide his frustration with this issue being brought to the court.
“What a fine state of affairs of a mess is going on over there at city council?” Farah said.
Fields’s punishment would be over after the council meeting on Oct. 25, and Farah repeatedly stated that his court decision was simply about whether she could speak at one more meeting.
Farah gave the two parties 13 minutes to discuss among themselves a remedy for the issue that wouldn’t require him to make a decision for them, but they were unable to.
He ultimately ruled that the punishment against Fields was not fair.
“The remedy chosen by the resolution transcended the wrongdoing the council felt she had engaged in,” he said. “In the court’s view, it became violative of the open meetings act when, as I read the act, her ability to speak and be heard was infringed.”
While Trebilcock argued that her vote was her way of being heard, Farah disagreed, and spoke to the importance of explaining your vote to the public and to your colleagues.
Farah said a proper remedy for the issue would have been to allow Fields to speak as a regular councilperson, but temporarily relieve her of her duties of chairing the meeting as president.
He said that his decision has no bearing on future resolutions the council may vote on– a comment that Councilman Eric Mays made note of.
“I think that the ruling should be appealed to the higher court, and so I’m going to talk with the council and talk with the attorneys and see if we can, because we don’t think it’s the right ruling,” Mays said. “But at the same time, the part that I liked is if she come in there acting a fool today, we can still punish. That’s what I like.”
Fields said she thinks that there needs to be specific rules for punishing council members.
“It’s really clear that city council rules need to be revised extensively to be very specific, with no ambiguities,” Fields said. “There are no specifics in council rules at all, and that needs to be fleshed out for sure.”