2016-10-20 / Front Page

‘Technical violation’ of act was unintentional; no charges filed

Open Meetings Act
By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

A special prosecutor this week declined to file criminal charges against a Leelanau County commissioner who was alleged to have violated the state Open Meetings Act (OMA) last year.

Grand Traverse County Prosecuting Attorney Robert Cooney on Monday released a three-page “complaint disposition form” in which he said District No. 5 Commissioner Patricia Soutas- Little committed a “technical violation” of the act but did not do so intentionally.

Cooney wrote that facts uncovered during an investigation into the alleged violation were “insufficient to find a criminal intent to avoid the requirements of the OMA ... although I find a technical violation of the OMA occurred as a result of the actions by Soutas-Little ...”

In December 2015, District No. 7 Commissioner Melinda Lautner publicly accused Soutas-Little of violating the act and the board chairman, District No. 6 Commissioner Carolyn “Peachy” Rentenbach, of trying to cover up the violation by lying about it.

Lautner alleged that Soutas- Little violated the OMA by making phone calls to other commissioners in December 2015 to discuss the pending appointment of a county resident to the county Parks and Recreation Commission. The OMA requires that all deliberations of a public body occur in meetings open to the public. Soutas-Little has insisted that she only made the phone calls to seek facts about the pending appointment.

Lautner took her complaint about Soutas-Little’s conduct to Leelanau County Prosecuting Attorney Joseph Hubbell, who put Lautner in contact with a Michigan State Police detective. Because they are funded through the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners, neither the Leelanau County Sheriff’s Office nor the Leelanau County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office could be directly involved in the investigation or disposition of the case to avoid a conflict of interest.

The State Police investigation concluded in May. Hubbell asked the state Attorney General to assign a special prosecutor to determine whether charges should be filed. Cooney was assigned the case in June, and ordered further investigation before he made a decision whether to file charges against Soutas-Little. Cooney announced his decision on Monday.

Lautner said she spoke to Cooney about the issue last month.

“We both agreed that Patricia Soutas-Little was not malicious in her actions, but perhaps did not know that you could not do what she did,” Lautner said. “Therefore, her intent was not to break the law.”

Lautner said she is “very satisfied” with Cooney’s decision.

“It was never my intention to have (Soutas-Little) charged with a criminal violation, but rather to ensure that all of the Board of Commissioners’ decisions going forward are made in public as required by law,” Lautner said.

“Now that the matter has been concluded, I intend to move forward and continue to serve my constituents as their Leelanau County Commissioner,” Lautner said.

A Republican, Lautner is facing a challenge in the Nov. 8 election from Democrat John O’Neill. Soutas-Little, a Democrat, is facing a challenge for her seat from Republican Dale Schaub.

“I am pleased that Mr. Cooney has released his disposition on the alleged violation of the Open Meetings Act brought by Commissioner Lautner in December 2015, and that no charges were warranted or filed,” Soutas-Little said.

“There was never any intent to influence a vote in private, only an attempt to discover all the facts prior to voting on an appointment,” Soutas-Little said. “I have always and will continue to seek facts in order to make informed decisions.”

Events occurring since the alleged violation occurred in December 2015 have made moot the original issue that was being discussed. The individual nominated for appointment to the Parks & Recreation Commission was not appointed, and the process of making appointments has been entirely revamped.

The County Board decided earlier this month to disestablish its three-member “Boards and Commissions Review Committee” that recommends the appointment of a slate of individuals to various county-sponsored bodies such as the Parks & Recreation Commission. Instead, recommendations for such appointments will now be made by the entire County Board acting as a “committee of the whole.”

Return to top

How much did this

How much did this investigation cost the tax payers?