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Michigan redistricting panel, which pledged openness, meets in secret

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The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission held a closed meeting Wednesday in East Lansing to discuss the Voting Rights Act and the history of discrimination in Michigan.

EAST LANSING —  As opposition builds to proposed legislative maps, the state's redistricting commission on Wednesday met in private to discuss whether the districts comply with federal law.

Members did so despite wide objections and repeated pledges of openness and transparency, as well a constitutional amendment mandating they “conduct all of its business at open meetings.”

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The 13-member commission, created by voters in 2018 after lawmakers drew legislative boundaries for decades behind closed doors, moved on Wednesday to suspend rules and discuss two memos in a closed session: one titled "Voting Rights Act” and another called “The History of Discrimination in the State of Michigan and its Influence on Voting.”

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The Michigan Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission instructed reporters to leave the meeting, blocked the room’s door windows with paper, and paused a live stream of the session.

The private discussion followed days of criticism from African-American leaders who questioned if the maps adhere to the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is designed to allow minorities to elect candidates of their choosing.

The redistricting panel, by year's end, is expected to approve legislative boundaries that will be used for the next decade. Michigan now has 17 majority-minority districts in the state Legislature, and two in the congressional delegation. But most of the commission's proposed maps only have one district that is over 50 percent majority Black.

“I think that this would allow us to freely discuss attorney-client matters with our lawyers freely and openly, where we all as a group can ask questions,” said Rebecca Szetela, an independent who serves as chair of the commission.

Although the contents of the memos are unknown to the public, Szetela told Bridge Michigan they were a legal opinion.

Eleven out of 13 commissioners voted to meet in closed session to  “discuss privileged and confidential memoranda.”

After the meeting, which lasted over an hour, the commission went back into session and quickly adjourned around 5:20 p.m., despite being scheduled to finish at 8 p.m.

The dissenting votes were cast by Republicans Erin Wagner and Rhonda Lange, who told commissioners the issues should be publicly debated.

“If this commission is working in full transparency, in my opinion, let’s be transparent,” Lange said. “I know that’s probably not what most of you want to hear.”

The commission’s move was criticized by both the state Democratic and Republican parties.

Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes said the commission cannot move forward until they address “what was discussed in closed session.”

“We have yet to hear the commission’s debrief on the public hearings,” Barnes said. “Instead of having an open and transparent discussion, the commission retreated behind closed doors."

The Michigan Republican Party called the private meeting a “new low.” 

“Michiganders were sold on a commission that would be transparent and accountable in the creation of fair state and federal districts under the constitution,” said Gustavo Portela, a party spokesperson. 

Michigan’s Open Meetings Act allows public bodies to deliberate in private under 11 circumstances, including discussion of personnel matters, collective bargaining negotiations and privileged attorney opinions.

The act allows government boards to discuss pending litigation with attorneys (there is no pending litigation against the commission) as well as “material exempt from discussion or disclosure by state or federal statute,” which generally means written opinions from lawyers.

Julianne Pastula, the commission’s general counsel, told reporters Wednesday evening she believes the commission followed the state’s Open Meetings Act.

When asked by Bridge Michigan if the panel would release all or parts of the memos, she declined.

“The commission holds the privilege on those memorandums and I think that the commission can — it has demonstrated a strong commitment to transparency,” Pastula said. “In the case of today, and discussing having a legal discussion with their attorneys, that is a reasonable way to move forward with that relationship.”

Pastula said the commission took minutes of the closed session, but they would not be made public.

Edward Woods III, the commission’s spokesperson, told Bridge Michigan in a text message that “no business (was) being conducted in closed session.”

He added the commission blocked the doors’ windows because it had received a death threat that delayed the meeting.

Observers say debating a crucial issue such as minority representation in private is troublesome and of questionable legality.

“The public has a right to know what the legal guidance— provided to the commission at taxpayer expenses— is so the public can understand how it will affect the decisions of public officials,” said Steven Liedel, an attorney who worked as legal counsel to former Democratic Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

“Unwise decision and terrible precedent for the MICRC, given lack of discussion of these legal issues.”

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