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In The Public Interest: Observing Local Government With The League Of Women Voters' Observer Corps

League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area
Lisa Barry
89.1 WEMU

In an effort to keep track of when and how local government entities make decisions impacting residents, the League of Women Voters of the Ann Arbor Area monitors meetings with the "Observer Corps."

89.1 WEMU's Lisa Barry talks with the newly-elected president of the local league, Joan Sampieri, about how it works and what are the benefits.

What is the Observer Corps?

League members attend local governmental meetings

  • learn what their government is doing
  • monitor whether those meetings are conducted in an open and transparent way.

How does this fit with the Ann Arbor League’s mission and program?

STATEMENT FROM LWV US:  Protecting our right to know is integral to the health of our democracy.  Decisions that determine how our schools will be run, at what level community safety programs will be funded, and how land in our towns will be used impact our lives and are vital to our well-being.  These kinds of decisions need to be made with public input and oversight. One important way to ensure that is to observe government meetings.  The League has been a champion of government transparency since our founding in 1920. It is one of our core principles and a vital part of our mission

  • Current LWVAAA activities such as the WEMU interviews (Know Your County Government), Lunch and Learn series, Brews and Views series, have all included speakers and discussions designed to inform area residents about government activities
  • Over the years, we have held public forums on local governmental topics such as privatization and how it has differently affected schools/county govt/ city/township.
  • Have held public forums to educate about local ballot initiatives, such as the Library Lot proposal.

Are All Governmental Meetings Open to the Public?

  • Sunshine laws, each different, generally declare that all records and meetings are open unless certain specified exemptions apply
  • The Observer program is careful to obey legal requirements

Why do this?

  • People know League promotes informed voting
  • Few know that throughout its history League has been a champion of government transparency
  • believes in empowering citizens to monitor local governmental meetings. 
  • Protecting our right to know is integral to the health of our democracy.
  • Decisions that determine how our schools will be run, at what level community safety programs will be funded, and how land in our towns will be used impact our lives and are vital to our well-being.
  • These kinds of decisions need to be made with public input and oversight
  • A structured way for individuals to exercise their right to know

How Does it Work?

  • Observers monitor both the issues being discussed as well as the process by which they are being discussed
  • Observer is not there because something is assumed to be wrong or, if something is, to place blame.
  • They are there to learn what is happening.
  • They are there to ensure that the public’s right to know is being honored and protected and, in some cases, to offer expertise on a given subject

PROCESS:  League president sends a letter introducing the observer to the head of the agency/committee to be observed.  2. Observers introduce themselves to the presiding officer and secretary/clerk at the first meeting they attend (and “make contact” with them at subsequent meetings as appropriate).  3. Observers introduce themselves to any members of the media that might be present to begin to foster a relationship/be seen as a resource.  4. Observers wear something (e.g., lapel pin, sticker or button) that identifies them as League members.  5. Observers should arrange to receive the meeting agenda in advance—to verify the availability of the agenda and be familiar with the current business items.

Do the Observers make statements?

  • No
  • Not vehicles for individuals to work a personal or partisan agenda.
  • Observers generally do not “act” on issues in these meetings.

Unless serving as a designated spokesperson for the League, observers do not provide commentary or testimony on issues on behalf of the League.How do you know when meetings are held?

  • Local units of government post date and time of meetings, publish agendas, and often minutes of prior meetings. 
  • There is a lot of information available on the internet

Who are Observers?

  • League members who have had training on how to conduct themselves, what to look for and how to report
  • Some Leagues have student observers

What are the Benefits of an Observer program?

 Benefit community:

  • Creating a civically engaged and empowered cadre of watchdogs;
  • Connecting individuals (observers and others with whom their observations are shared) with government;
  • Promoting open, transparent and accountable government;
  • Connecting elected/appointed officials with their constituents; 
  • Educating the public about issues impacting their communities and their lives;
  • Identifying areas where action or improvement is needed.

 Benefit the observers by:

  • Learn about issues and processes
  • Meet elected officials and government employees
  • Provide a community service

What will you do with the information gathered?

  • Share with the local League and with the community using any or all of the various outlets we have:  WEMU, public forums, media outreach
  • If we learn of a local issue that the League would support or oppose, it is possible that we could do a public information campaign on the issue.

How about Michigan government?

Paul Egan, Detroit Free Press, in 2015 wrote that:

“Michigan ranks last in a national study of state ethics and transparency laws and safeguards, set for release today, partly due to its weak public records law and an absence of laws requiring personal financial disclosures by lawmakers and top state officials. In all, 11 states received failing grades of F in the study, but Michigan's rating was last in the study by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity, two nonprofit organizations that promote government transparency and ethics….
Michigan's worst--in-the-nation ranking doesn't mean Michigan is the most corrupt state. The score doesn't speak to the level of corruption in Michigan, since that's not what's being measured, Kusnetz said. Instead, the study looks at what laws are in place and how those laws are implemented, in order to assess the systems intended to prevent corruption and expose it when it does occur.”

This is a ranking of MI State Government, not local, and, this year, legislators are discussing financial disclosure requirements, but not much has really changed since 2015.

TheMichigan League monitors state governmental affairs, reports to membership about issues, advocates with state elected officials in support of official League positions.

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— Lisa Barry is the host of All Things Considered on WEMU. You can contact Lisa at 734.487.3363, on Twitter @LisaWEMU, or email her at lbarryma@emich.edu

Lisa Barry was a reporter, and host of All Things Considered on 89.1 WEMU.
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