Public bodies balance virus fears, Open Meetings Act
In a time of coronavirus, keeping government open bumps into the priority of public safety.
Governmental bodies in the state are navigating the conflict with a series of arrangements: delaying meetings, separating chairs and bending, for the time being, provisions of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.
Some meetings are not scheduled for a few weeks, affording postponement of tough decisions about how to proceed. In other instances, public bodies are canceling meetings — and facing objections from open government advocates.
Detroit police commissioner Willie Burton said he plans to go to Public Safety Headquarters at 3 p.m. Thursday, the usual place and time for weekly board meetings, to protest board chair Lisa Carter’s decision to suspend the meetings for two weeks.
“I’m showing up, and here’s why: we can’t let fear hold us hostage, and we must protect our civil liberties,” Burton said. “This motion was not voted on, and it’s a violation of the Open Meetings Act.”
Carter said she canceled the meetings because of health concerns.
"Governor Whitmer declared a state of emergency and the White House has recommended that people not meet in groups of more than 10 people," Carter said in a statement. "Given the serious nature of the coronavirus pandemic, most logical people would agree that we follow these recommendations to limit the spread of the virus.
"We will not put any lives in jeopardy, including the residents of the city of Detroit, members of the BOPC, DPD and staff," Carter said. "I encourage everyone to think logically. Think about your health as well as the health of other ... follow the recommendations of the professionals. Stay home."
Burton said most board meetings attract only a handful of citizens, so holding them wouldn’t likely violate Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s ban on gatherings of more than 50 people.
“We are in a national crisis, and people want to be able to have access to their commissioners,” Burton said. “It’s not right to just cancel the meetings like this, without even voting on it.”
Last week, Whitmer issued a directive on the Open Meetings Act, for all state departments, agencies and commissions, with the advice that local governments seek their own legal counsel.
Many are abiding by the governor’s directive to consider postponing meetings that can be delayed and providing adequate notice and access for all participants for meetings that must occur as scheduled.
“This could include remote participation by conference call, real-time streaming, or other platforms, so long as public access and participation is preserved,” the governor directed.
Some public bodies are taking that direction.
“Due to the technology that we have in Macomb County and with the governor’s declaration regarding the Open Meetings Act we are able to act virtually,” said Courtney Flynn, a spokeswoman for the Macomb County Board of Commissioners. “So we are putting those measures in place just to act safely.”
The Macomb County commissioners are holding a special full board meeting at 3 p.m. Wednesday to extend an emergency declaration ordered Saturday by County Executive Mark Hackel. The meeting, which could include some members participating remotely, will be webcast.
In the county, and around Metro Detroit and the state, officials said they intended to use technology, social media and old media to provide remote access to participation in meetings by both officials and the public, including tools like email, Skype, YouTube and cable TV.
Commissioners and the public will be able to access the meeting by visiting https://meet.google.com/qaz-vkhe-pei or calling 1-505-738-2315 and entering this PIN: 612 318 489#.
In Macomb County, under the board of commissioners, an Adult Advisory Committee meeting was canceled, and two committee meetings next week were rescheduled as part of the next full board meeting March 26.
The county intends for that meeting to occur “in person” but is exploring ways to hold it virtually if necessary, Flynn said.
“We are also in the process of creating an agenda to hold a virtual meeting this Thursday to extend the state of emergency in the county," she said. “Commissioners can come in. They can use their devices in their offices if needed.
"And we’re also going to have a call-in number for the public to call in to listen and to participate as well, as well as staff and commissioners who may not be able to make it.”
Legal requirements such as holding a minimum number of meetings per month are forcing decisions.
In an effort to comply with Whitmer’s executive order and health officials' recommendations regarding social distancing, the Oakland County Board of Commissioners planned to meet remotely Wednesday evening via the internet. Asked who would be in the meeting room, board Chairman David Woodward said, "Probably just me."
The public can view meetings through the real-time webcast on the board's homepage at www.oakgov.com/boc. It also will contain an online public comment submission portal, according to Woodward.
“We have run this by our legal counsel and it conforms with the Open Meetings Act and does not violate any laws,” Woodward said.
Woodward, D-Royal Oak, said the agenda will include old and new business, including his effort to seek approval to spend $1 million to carry out Whitmer’s order and to safeguard the county’s 1.2 million residents, businesses and visitors.
“Some commissioners have expressed some concerns about public meetings because of personal health reasons,” Woodward said. “This should help make everyone comfortable as we continue to conduct important county business moving forward.”
“What we’re really trying to do is provide more avenues for folks that want to provide input, comments through electronic, whether it’s email or chat room functions. So, we’re exploring that and putting something on our website.
“We have a webcast, live feed that we do already.”
Commissioners will have access to video teleconferencing for voting and participation. “Some will be here in person and some will be video conferencing; the first time we’ve done it,” he said.
In Wayne County, a full board of commissioners meeting slate scheduled for this week has been postponed to April 2, despite a legal requirement to meet twice per month. But that could change.
“Everything is so fluid,” said Commissioner Alisha Bell, the chairwoman. “If we can, if we are allowed to, we are just taking it week by week.
“This would obviously be outside of the requirement. But, given the uncharted territory we are in, right now, I think we’ll be OK to push it back to the 2nd of April.”
Bell said the prospective agenda for the second meeting of March was examined closely for any items that might require action, with an eye toward action by the county executive, if required. But no such matters are pending, she said.
Online access to the commissioners meetings is being explored, she said. “I am hopeful we will have somethings worked out for the 2nd,” Bell said.
“A big thing is getting done what needs to be done. But of course, the biggest thing is the safety of all our employees and commissioners and the public. So whatever we do to make sure we are abiding by that, to keep everyone safe, is of utmost importance.”
In Livonia, no meetings are canceled.
But City Clerk Susan Nash ample consideration is being given to how to keep people safe and government accessible, amid often fluid considerations.
“As of this time, right now, and I mean 2:32 in the afternoon (Monday), I know of no meetings that are canceled,” she said, chuckling.
“We have a council meeting scheduled for next Monday. Our charter says that we are supposed to have two voting meetings a month. So you have your charter issues and the Open Meetings Act. And someone said, can it be online? Can we Skype in? And the question was, then what happens to the open meetings?"
“And,someone said, well people can email in. But then, that might not happen until after a vote is taken.”
Nash said the city will continue to weigh issues, while planning to keep meetings open, while staying current with public health needs amid the coronavirus.
Because, especially at the local level, government is important to someone, she said.
“There is not an issue in particular,” Nash said. “It could be about a dog or a petition for an open party. But sometimes we get people that complain — you never know.”
In Plymouth, the City Commission and liquor license review committees met Monday, as publicly announced.
“In Plymouth, we’re on as scheduled,” City Manager Paul Sincock said.
“We’ve retrofitted our room a little bit to spread the seats out a bit and the elected officials out a bit,” he said.
“We have an email blast when we send the agenda out. We said, look, it’s going to be on TV Tuesday. Just wait for that.
“But it’s open."
In Birmingham, all city board and committee meetings have been canceled through April 5, when the cancellations will be reconsidered.
The City Commission meeting March 23 is required by charter, but the meeting has been postponed, and the city announced that remote access technologies “are being explored that could allow for effective meetings under the Michigan Open Meetings Act.”
Sterling Heights was to conduct its regularly scheduled City Council meeting Tuesday by phone, under provisions of an emergency declaration and Whitmer’s directive, said Melanie Davis, the city's community relations director.
“Due to this change, the council meeting will be abbreviated and is expected to last approximately 15 minutes,” Davis said.
The agenda is published at sterling-heights.net and residents can listen to the meeting live at sterling-heights.net/shtvlive or on local cable channels 5, 10 or 99.
Residents who have comments can email them to email@example.com, and the comments will be including in the minutes of the meeting.
In Shelby Township, the board of trustees also planned to meet, as usual, at 7 p.m., Tuesday, but citing the governor’s executive order, said the meeting room would be closed to the public.
The trustees and Planning Commission meetings were to be televised on Shelby TV channels 4, 10 or 99. Trustees meetings will stream live at shelbytwp.org/online_services at the “Watch Board of Trustees’ meeting online” link.
Public comments can be emailed to Township Clerk Stanley Grot at firstname.lastname@example.org before and during meetings. They may also be submitted by phone by calling township attorney Rob Huth at (586) 412-4900.
Residents can view the March 17 board of trustees' agenda at shelbytwp.org/board_of_trustees at the “Board of Trustees’ meeting agendas” link.
Before Whitmer issued the directive, Huth had called for amending the Michigan Open Meetings Act to provide for temporary virtual participation, which some county and municipal governments are putting into place.
“I’m glad the governor responded quickly and when time puts pressure to get things done quickly, sometimes there’s a thought that things could be done differently,” Huth said. “So I guess as time goes by, we can think about amending it."
“But it gives the townships and cities good direction, so committees are able to go forward and get to the business that needs to be done."
Emily Guerrant, a spokeswoman for Michigan State University, said the regularly scheduled meeting of the board of trustees for April 16 is canceled “as of today.”
“We do have another board meeting scheduled in June, and we’re evaluating whether to roll the agenda items into the June meeting or if a special meeting would be needed in between,” she said.
“We’re also exploring the types of technology that can be used for the meetings and still honor public participation and transparency.”
The University of Michigan Board of Regents will have its March 26 meeting, but that will be conducted virtually, with the regents not physically present.
“The public will be able to listen to the meeting and participate in public comments, although the precise details on how that will work are still being worked out,” said spokesman Rick Fitzgerald.