Newspaper wins right to view city agreements, council minutes
MICHIGAN–Minutes of meetings during which the city council approves settlement agreements, and the agreements themselves, are subject to disclosure under the state open records and meetings acts, according to a mid-April decision by the Wayne County Circuit Court in Detroit.
The court rejected arguments by the city of Dearborn that the materials were not subject to disclosure because of exemptions relating to the attorney-client privilege, personal information and settlement strategy. The court also rejected the city’s argument that the settlement agreements were subject to court sealing orders.
Heritage Newspapers Inc., publisher of the Dearborn Press & Guide, sought access in mid-May under the state open records and meetings acts to copies of four city settlement agreements, any related court orders, and minutes of all city council meetings in which settlement agreements were approved.
The city denied the request in late May 1994, and Heritage Newspapers appealed to the Wayne County Circuit Court in Detroit the following July.
The city argued that the settlement agreements fell within open records act exemptions for material subject to the attorney-client privilege and for “information of a personal nature,” the disclosure of which “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.” The city claimed that the documents contained personal financial information.
The attorney-client privilege only applies to material the client intends the attorney to keep confidential, the court said. Settlement agreements, by their nature, are intended to be disclosed to parties outside the attorney-client relationship, it added. Furthermore, Heritage Newspapers was seeking minutes from settlement-approval meetings rather than settlement-strategy meetings, the court explained.
The personal information exemption, the court said, was inapplicable because the amount of public money the city spent to settle damage claims against it is not “information of a personal nature” within the meaning of the statute. (Heritage Newspapers Inc. v. City of Dearborn; Media Counsel: Herschel Fink, Detroit)