Democracy Continues as Local Governments Have Electronic Meetings

Democracy Continues as Local Governments Have Electronic Meetings

(Crystal A. Proxmire, April 4, 2020)

Ferndale, Pontiac, MI – As residents aim to “stay home and stay safe” during the coronavirus outbreak, the work of local government continues with the help of electronic meetings.  Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed Executive Order 2020-15 in March allowing meetings to be conducted through web and telephone as long the public is still able to participate.

“We are taking every measure we can to mitigate the spread of coronavirus and protect Michigan families, but recognize that public bodies still have an obligation to conduct business as usual,” Whitmer said.

The Oakland County Board of Commissioners became the first body in the state to test the new approach, having their March 19, 2020 meeting in an online Zoom conference call.  Cities, townships, and villages have been following suit.   “In planning to meet remotely, we took extraordinary steps to maximize public participation, were able to conduct important county business and modeled and practiced social distancing – something we all need to do to address the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Board Chairman David T. Woodward (D-Royal Oak). “Our experience can serve as a model for other local governments to ensure transparency and openness during this emergency.”

The Board allowed for in person public comment at the meeting and accepted comments submitted through an online public comment portal, which were read aloud during the meeting. Chairman Woodward was the only commissioner physically present in the Oakland County Board of Commissioners Auditorium, while the other 20 commissioners were connected via video conferencing technology. The entire meeting was webcast live and recorded, which is consistent with normal board meeting practices. Although no members of the public chose to attend in person, the plan was to invite them to a prepared station at the podium with a video connection to all commissioners where they could share their comments.

The City of Ferndale was among those who opted to use Zoom, an option that shows each participant on the screen in a manner reminiscent of the Brady Bunch TV show theme.

“It’s been a rapid learning curve for all elected officials. So far, I observe everyone is adapting including Ferndale,” said Ferndale Mayor Melanie Piana.

“Watching council meetings at home on the computer is not new.  Folks like watching the live city council meetings on YouTube and through our cable access channel; we can have up to a 100 viewers depending on the agenda item.  However participating in public comment through the Zoom app and call in number are new.”

City council and staff practiced using Zoom before the meeting, and Piana took care to inform the public through the meeting process.

“During the virtual meetings, my new practice is to walk through and explain the procedures before each public comment or call to the audience period.  We’re all learning and getting better at virtual meetings together,” Mayor Piana said.  “Be Adaptive. Remain Flexible. Focus on Continuous Improvement.

“There is no difference in my opinion being on camera in city hall or on camera at home; I remain live on camera, accountable and transparent to our residents. Council piloted the Zoom meeting twice before going live to work out the video and sound issues, learned the features in Zoom and practiced talking so we don’t talk over one another.  While our team works diligently to avoid tech issues, sometimes they happen. For example, at our first virtual meeting last Monday, the cable system broadcast overheated 10 minutes before the meeting started. Unfortunately, we could not broadcast the virtual meeting live as originally planned. We’re fixing it for next time.”

The Michigan Municipal League, an organization serving local officials and administration, was quick to put out a guide for cities explaining the new order, reminding them of open meetings act provisions, and offering tips to make the meetings as painless as possible.

Electronic meetings must be held “in a manner in which both the general public and the members of the public body may participate by electronic means.”  In addition to the ability to have verbal public comment, bodies may also allow typed public comments.  For example, public comment could be taken over a YouTube chat and read into the record.  Members of the public cannot be excluded from participating “except for a breach of the peace actually committed during the meeting,” according to the MML presentation.

They also reminded communities that a remote meeting is still a public meeting.  Regular notice must still be given, along with a special notice for an electronic meeting.  A quorum is still needed. Minutes still need to be taken.  And public comment must still be included.

Solutions must meet state requirements:

~Provides two-way communication

~Can’t require registration to participate

~Allows for citizens with disabilities to participate

~Toll Free calling or local number calling options

~Can have chat capabilities but not ONLY chat capabilities as a method of two-way communication

MML also offered tips to make the online meeting go more smoothly:

~Know your internet speed (speedtest.net)

~Know your equipment capabilities (personal as well as at city hall)

~Lighting matters (don’t sit with your back to a bright light)

~Check your surroundings prior to a meeting (declutter)

~ Minimize disturbances (where’s the dog?)

Piana and others in Ferndale have embraced the technological change.  “I have wanted the ability for the city to take video public comments for years now. It took a state of emergency to remove these restrictions on cities. When the state and cities shift focus to recovery, I hope certain components in the emergency Open Meetings Act remain in place such as taking public comments over video, in addition to in-person comments, as normal public practice.  Technology is challenging council meeting traditions; cities need the flexibility to adapt to meet the needs of their community,” she said.   In Ferndale the meetings are held via Zoom, but with streaming also happening on YouTube.

For information on how your city, township, or village is handling meetings with social distance, visit their website or contact the municipal offices.  For more information from the Michigan Municipal League visit http://blogs.mml.org/wp/coronavirus/files/2020/03/Covid-19-Remote-Public-Meeting-Participation-Presentation-MML-FINAL-reduced-size.pdf

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