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Whitmer directive allows for electronic public meetings to slow COVID-19 spread

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Public bodies can conduct meetings electronically for the next month under an executive order signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday.

The order allows boards, commissions, committees and councils to use telephone or video conferencing tools to meet if they can provide “meaningful access and participation” to the public.

To ensure access, public bodies must make sure there is adequate notice of the meeting, allow for the recording or broadcast of the meeting and provide two-way communication opportunities between the public and the public body. Meeting officials themselves can participate remotely in the meeting.

School boards will be exempt from monthly meetings under the new order.

The order ensures meeting officials and the public can maintain social distancing and avoid spread the coronavirus during those public meetings, Whitmer said.

“During this crisis, we must ensure that public officials can do their job to meet the needs of residents while also ensuring that meetings remain open, accessible and transparent to the public,” Whitmer said.

The Senate majority leader said he was concerned about the changes Whitmer ordered, with the body's Republican caucus calling for "more access to their elected officials, not less."

"The Senate Republican Caucus is deeply concerned about Executive Order 2020-15 to alter requirements under the Open Meetings Act," said Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake.  "We believe this order may limit the public’s ability to participate in the democratic process. 

"We call upon our governor to provide greater guidance to ensure elected bodies do not hinder public input by choosing to conduct business via technology that may be inaccessible for some citizens. Older Michiganders are most at risk during these times. They are also the least likely to have the technology necessary to access public meetings electronically. In a time of crisis, citizens should have more access to their elected officials, not less."

Governmental bodies in the state so far have been navigating the prospect of holding a public meeting in a time of social distancing with delayed meetings, separated chairs and bending provisions of the Michigan Open Meetings Act.

The executive order is one of nearly a dozen that have been issued in the last week to mitigate the spread of the virus and to give the state latitude to respond to the fallout of COVID-19.

Since the first confirmed cases were announced March 10, Whitmer has issued executive orders closing K-12 schools, limiting public gatherings, closing restaurants and bars, expanding unemployment benefits and cracking down on price gouging.