Dorr Township Trustee John Tuinstra is absorbing criticism from Planning Commission members who maintain he may have violated state “eavesdropping” laws last week.
Tuinstra attended the Oct. 17 Plan Commission meeting and a tape recorder was found after the session had ended by Township Treasurer Jim Martin. The device, marked as belonging to Tuinstra, was located on a thermostat in the meeting room at the township hall.
Martin said, “As I was coming out of the kitchen area — probably 10 or 15 minutes after the Planning Commission meeting ended — with a bottle of water, I noticed a red light on top of the Emergency Defibrillator. The top of this is at my eye level (I’m 6’3″) and I went over and it was a running audio recorder. I turned it off and took it up to Bob Wagner, he examined it and found John Tuinstra’s name on a label on the back. Bob and Larry were having a discussion up front (of the room), and it seems two people in the audience were also having a conversation. I did not listen to anything on the tape, and I was not present at the meeting.”
Planning Commission Chairman Robert Wagner confirmed the account that the tape recorded a private conversation between him and Commissioner Larry Dolegowski. Wagner said the meeting had adjourned, so the two men were not engaged in public discourse. All other Planning Commission members had left.
Attorney Renee C. Walsh, on a web site, defined eavesdropping as “the overhearing or recording of the private discourse of others.”
Attorney Peter A. Torrice of Canu Torrice Law, said on line, “When you record a private conversation without another party’s knowledge or consent, in Michigan that is ‘eavesdropping’ and it is a felony for which statutory law provides civil remedies.”
He said state law prohibits people from installing, placing or using in any private place, without the consent of the person or persons entitled to privacy in that place, any device for observing, recording, transmitting, photographing, or eavesdropping upon the sounds or events in that place.”
Indeed, the township hall is a public place, but Wagner and members of the Planning Commission said it no longer was public in this case because the meeting had been adjourned.
Though he has not yet responded to an e-mail query from Townbroadcast, Tuinstra very well could say he accidentally left the tape recorder and forgot to take it with him. However, there is no record of him asking Wagner if he could install, place or use the recorder.
When asked by Townbroadcast, Planning Commission Vice Chairman Robert Traxler said he could not recall any time when a Planning Commission meeting was tape recorded, though the practice is common at Township Board meetings.
Torrice went on to say on the web site, “If you place a tape recorder in your employer’s office and record private conversations that you are not a party to, or leave a tape recorder in your ex-wife’s bedroom and pick it up later to listen to what occurred while you were not there, or if you are simply quietly sitting in a room and not participating in the conversation, then you may be guilty of a felony and can go to prison if convicted because you were not a participant in the conversations recorded.”
However, the Digital Media Law Project added, “When you attend a public meeting (i.e., a meeting of a governmental body required to be open to the public by law), Michigan law gives you the right to make video and sound recordings of the meeting and to broadcast live. The exercise of this right is not dependent on prior approval by the public body, but the public body may establish reasonable rules and regulations to avoid disruption of meetings.”
There has been speculation among some local officials that Tuinstra was doing the bidding of Planning Commissioner and Township Board member Terri Rios, who filed a complaint earlier this year with Township Supervisor Jeff Miling, insisting the Plan Commission was holding illegal meetings after adjournment.
Wagner and members of the commission have agreed that after meetings some members linger to chat for a brief period, but not enough to make up a quorum.
Rios, Tuinstra and Clerk Debbie Sewers earlier this year voted against the reappointment of Wagner to the commission. Wagner has served as chairman of the commission since 1975.