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The Muskegon Chronicle
by John S. Hausman |
Sunday March 08, 2009, 1:28 AM
WHITE LAKE AREA — A judge has ruled that the White Lake Ambulance Authority violated Michigan’s Open Meetings Act by holding a closed-door Aug. 20 board meeting to discuss the firing of then-Director Brian Binns.
Muskegon County 14th Circuit Judge Timothy G. Hicks on Thursday ordered the authority to release the written minutes and a tape-recording of the illegally closed meeting.
The Chronicle was unable to get access to those records Friday. A copy in the court file was still sealed. Binns’ attorney, Ronald M. Redick of Grand Rapids, said Friday he had not yet received the records.
A call placed with authority attorney Douglas M. Hughes was not returned Friday. Authority Chairman Donald Studaven declined to comment and said he doesn’t have access to the records.
Depositions from Studaven and another authority member indicate they fired Binns because of “erratic” behavior, which Redick said was a result of medications Binns’ was taking for job-related ailments.
Hicks rejected the authority’s argument that the meeting was properly closed to discuss a letter from Hughes, who had just been retained as one of the board’s attorneys. Attorney communications are one of the Open Meetings Act exemptions.
After privately reviewing the meeting records, Hicks wrote, “Hughes did very little talking … The majority of the meeting concerned discussion about substantive matters, with one of the members encouraging and urging a decision on that issue in the closed session.” After the closed meeting, the board voted unanimously to fire Binns.
Binns’ attorney was pleased. “I believe the ruling does represent nearly a complete victory in Brian’s OMA lawsuit,” Redick said.
“It represents a determination by the court that the board’s Aug. 20 closed session plainly violated the Open Meetings Act, because the board used that closed session to discuss the termination of Brian, to state claims and charges against Brian, to discuss the terms under which Brian would be terminated, and to unlawfully conspire to keep that discussion private,” Redick said.
He said possible sanctions include invalidation of the firing, $500 fines against board members and requirements the board pay Binns’ legal costs. He declined to comment on what sanctions Binns would seek.
Redick contends that the meeting was closed to conceal from the public “that the authority terminated Brian because of medical disabilities … and rather than reasonably accommodate him as they were required, instead made the decision to terminate him.”
Redick said Binns has filed complaints with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the state Department of Civil Rights, claiming the authority wrongfully fired him “on the basis of his disability.”
Depositions of board members, in the court file, shed light on the members’ stated reasons for firing Binns and for closing the meeting.
In a Feb. 9 deposition, Studaven testified that members were concerned about what they considered Binns’ erratic behavior and possible alleged abuse of prescription medication or alcohol.
Studaven testified that members closed the meeting — and agreed not to discuss their decision with newspaper reporters — because they didn’t want to “drag (Binns’) name through the mud.”
Authority member Pete Staal testified of concerns about “erratic behaviors, some issues that staff perceived as dangerous, there were some issues with staff feeling threatened.”
All such behaviors were medical-related, Redick said Friday.
“Brian due to 38 years of having endured one of the most difficult, grueling jobs both emotionally and physically … had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, clinical depression, and he had severe back injuries,” Redick said. As a result, Binns was on prescription drugs with side effects including severe headaches, anxiety, mood swings and confusion, Redick said.
Redick said he has advised Binns not to talk to reporters.