What’s Next for Virtual Meetings? MML Share Updates on OMA
(Crystal A. Proxmire, March 19, 2021)
Lansing, MI – Love them or hate them, virtual meetings have become a part of local governance over the past year. And as the state navigates its way through a pandemic that is not yet over, one of the things in limbo is how city councils, township boards, school boards, and other public bodies will convene.
Over 150 community leaders from across the state tuned in Wednesday for an online presentation on the Open Meetings Act as part of the Michigan Municipal League’s 2021 virtual Capital Conference. Steve Mann of Miller Canfield gave some history of OMA changes in the face of COVID, updates about where the law stands and where it could be headed, and some scenarios that communities can look to as they make decisions about how to handle meetings.
The OMA requires that public bodies make decisions in a transparent way that includes deliberating at public meetings, and allowing public comment at those meetings. COVID-19 meant that gatherings were dangerous and even life-threatening, so in March of 2020 when Executive Order 2020+15 was enacted it gave temporary authority for local governing bodies to meet remotely. This originally was set to expire April 15, 2020 but has been continuously extended until recently. It is, however, expected to expire March 31.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN
There are some efforts in the works that could pass the state legislature, though local leaders should not expect for any of them to happen. HB 4286 has been introduced which would continue remote meetings for unelected and uncompensated (excluding transportation reimbursement) boards, which Mann said is more about the convenience for those who live far from meeting locations than a response to the pandemic itself. HB 4371 would extend the remote option in perpetuity. And a bill in the senate would extend the remote option through June 30.
Mann said it’s unlikely those legislative options could happen, and he focused on what public bodies could do in the current circumstance.
After March 31, bodies can resume meeting in person, but there are limitations.
One is that they must still allow for remote participation by those who can’t attend due to active military service and those who have a medical condition that prevents them from attending. Mann noted that the participant does not need to divulge their medical condition, but that cities may ask them to attest to having a condition.
Two is that per Michigan Department of Health and Human Services orders, meetings cannot have more than 25 people attending – which includes officials, staff, and attendees. This number is not dependent on room size or space, so moving to a larger location would not allow for more people. However, Mann said it could be worth exploring the possibility of having an onsite overflow room as long as people could still participate, but cautioned cities to be careful and to consult with their city attorney about it.
It’s important to note that public bodies can’t turn people away. “If you have more than 25 people show up you have to cancel the meeting,” he said.
Mann explained that some bodies had successfully met outside in the warmer months of 2020. For an outdoor meeting the capacity limit set by DHHS is 300 people. The biggest issue, he said, was uncooperative weather.
There are three reasons remote meetings can happen. As described earlier, active duty military members can attend remotely, as can individuals with a medical condition.
The third option is if there is a state of emergency as declared by the state or by a local governing body.
According to the Emergency Management Act of 1976, “disaster” can include “epidemic.” This paves the way for municipalities and county governments to make local declarations. The Chief Administrative Officer can declare a state of emergency, and there must also be an Emergency Management Coordinator appointed.
Mann noted that declaring a state of emergency is a municipal function, and isn’t something that a library board or school board can do. Those bodies would depend on the municipality they are in making that declaration.
He said that counties could make emergency declarations that could cover the municipalities within, but that local governments might also want the protection of their own. This is particularly useful if a county has a declaration that gets challenged, having a local one is an added layer of protection. For all decisions, Mann recommended consulting with their city attorney first.
Communities under an emergency declaration could also opt for a hybrid meeting option that has people attending in person (not to exceed 25), as well as people attending remotely.
LOCAL EXAMPLE – BERKLEY
Among the officials discussing the presentation in the chat room of the presentation was City of Berkley Councilperson Steve Baker who provided his city’s declaration as an example.
Following the meeting, Baker told Oakland County Times that his council had voted unanimously to extend the emergency declaration through June 30. “Virtual meetings enable municipalities like Berkley to safely conduct local government business in safe, efficient way,” he said. “In addition to ensuring physical separation, staff is not required to sanitize council chambers before and after each meeting, saving time and money. We’re able to invite and include speakers, applicants, experts, etc. to share their insights on a particular agenda item without them incurring any travel time or expense. And if ensuring the health and safety of residents, staff, and council is not enough, with virtual meetings we are able to productively conduct the City’s work while setting a positive example of taking the pandemic seriously and embracing appropriate, thoughtful precautions.”
Baker emphasized that the pandemic is not over. “Berkley’s extension of the emergency declaration is a stark reminder of the health danger that continues to rampage our country and in Berkley. Together we must continue to take this seriously and protect the health and safety of ourselves, our families, fellow residents, and city staff.
“While the soon-to-be-expanded availability of vaccines is a tremendously welcome glimmer of hope for us all, now is not the time to declare victory. What we’ve been doing is indeed working. If a single person were to get sick from the coronavirus as a result of a Berkley meeting, I would be beside myself in grief. As leaders in our community we must not fail our fellow neighbors, residents, and businesses now when the future looks promising ahead.”
The Michigan Municipal League continues to monitor the changes around the OMA and other legislative topics of concern to cities, villages, and townships. Check out the latest on the MML website.