Debate Continues as Public Bodies Resume In Person Meetings
(Crystal A. Proxmire, Jan. 25, 2022)
Oakland County, MI – With the start of the new year, public bodies like city councils, township boards, county commission, library and school boards have gone back to in-person meetings.
The state legislature had been giving extension on emergency orders to allow meeting to be held remotely – which was generally done via Zoom – during the pandemic. But by allowing the orders to expire, the rules go back to the status quo – in person except for officials who are on active duty in the military and are unable to attend in person.
Though the law is back to normal, the debate carries on for officials at all levels. Oakland County Times recently sat in on a Michigan Townships Association (MTA) discussion giving leaders from across the state a chance to hear from an expert and ask questions. We then checked in with local officials for their thoughts on the pros and cons of remote meetings.
Attorney Catherine Mullhaupt explained the basics.
She said that while officials had to be in person for discussion and voting, others who are part of meetings may still attend remotely. For example a city manager could attend remotely, or any presenters, or even members of the public. Remote participation is not required of public bodies, simply an option (apart from the active duty exception). Bodies also have the choice if they want to broadcast a meeting or not.
“You can have pretty much everyone on Zoom but the board,” Mullhaupt said.
She urged all officials and administrators to check with their own attorney for legal opinions if needed, but that in general there were a few things to avoid.
One is that if a board member is physically absent from the in-person meeting, they may observe the meeting remotely, but they may not participate in the meeting as it would violate the Open Meetings Act, which only gives the exemption for those on active military duty.
She explained that the Open Meetings Act does not just cover the vote itself, but also the discussion of topics, which it calls “deliberating.” The OMA is intended to ensure that not only votes, but also discussions with a quorum of members, happen at public meetings. An official cannot be at a public meeting remotely, unless on active duty, so if they speak at a meeting they are then participating while not being there in person, which is a violation of the act.
Mullhaupt also cautioned members against OMA violations in general, such as meeting in person or virtually outside of public meeting times to discuss topics with a quorum of officials from that body. Discussions that are “deliberating toward,” or “deciding” matters of the board should be done in public meetings.
She also gave members a refresher about the rules for posting meetings and having special meetings, which can be particularly important as quarantines and illnesses continue to prevent people from attending meetings. If enough members of a body can’t attend, then meetings can’t be held. This can prevent important decisions from being made, sometimes even keeping basic bills from being paid.
The rules for setting up and posting special meetings vary depending on the body, and even among townships there are different rules for General Law Townships and Charter Townships. So consulting an attorney for details is best. But it’s important for bodies to know and follow the law as circumstances arise.
Other basics included reminders that all meetings must include public comment, meetings cannot take place without a quorum, and that notices must be physically posted so members of the public walking by can see it. If there is no meeting held due to weather, or if a quorum cannot me made, then a meeting may either be cancelled or recessed. A recess allows bodies to reconvene more quickly as it doesn’t have the same posting requirements. A recess can also be called if a meeting has too many attendees for a space and it needs to be relocated to a larger room to reconvene.
Another helpful tool for officials is passing a “post audit policy.” This means that if there is an emergency and a meeting can’t be held, administrators have clearly defined parameters for paying certain bills without prior board approval – such as utilities and payroll. Mullhaupt said a policy should be clear about which bills are included, and under what circumstances the authority is given.
MTA, MML, and SEMCOG SHARE INFO
MTA advocates for and educates officials and administrators of Townships, and groups like Michigan Municipal League and Southeast Michigan Council of Governments (SEMCOG) also work to inform their members, who can be from townships, cities, or villages. None have taken a position on whether meetings should be held remotely or in person. Rather they have been helping to navigate the rules and keep members informed of changes.
Trevor Leyton, Communications Manager for SEMCOG, told Oakland County Times “While SEMCOG has not adopted any official policies, we are part of ongoing efforts to find a legislative solution to allow virtual meetings. With the somewhat unpredictable nature of the pandemic as well as the broad spectrum of viewpoints in the legislature about the issue, it has not been an easy thing to solve. The continuation of government operations, transparency, and public access to policy-making process are all of paramount importance and must be balanced with provisions that provide for the safety of both public servants and the public.”
PROS AND CONS OF REMOTE MEETINGS
The idea of using Zoom for meetings is not new, but it took a pandemic for local governments to try out the technology for themselves. And that’s had mixed reviews by officials and the public.
On the plus side, remote meetings can be more convenient. They can save time and expense, especially for county-wide and state-wide boards where traveling is more of an issue. They can be safer in dangerous weather, and when there is risk of illness. They can also be used by officials who might otherwise be traveling for business, on vacation – including the “snow-birds” – Michiganders who travel south for the winter.
In a 2021 plea to state legislatures, The Michigan Association of Conservation Districts argued that “the COVID-19 pandemic has been a paradigm shifting crisis for the entire world. As a society, we’ve collectively learned that many organizations, businesses, and governments can effectively function remotely; and in many cases function more efficiently. Moreover, this paradigm shift to remote meetings has actually made public meetings more accessible for Michiganders with physical disabilities or transportation barriers that would otherwise prevent them from attending in-person public meetings.”
However remote meetings can make discussions more tedious, especially when technical difficulties arise. And they can take away some of the ebb and flow of conversation that happens in an in-person setting. Internet connection speed and stability can cause problems, with one mayor even telling Oakland County Times of a meeting where three officials lost service during a remote city council meeting.
LOCAL OFFICIALS WEIGH IN
Bob Hoffman, a Republican from NW Oakland County, likes to meet in person. “I am the chairman of the Holly DDA, I am member of the Highland Township ZBA , A member of the Oakland County sanitary appeal board and a member of the Oakland County Board of Commissioners. We all meet in person,” Hoffman said. “ I think where you can do it safely you should meet in person. I think the interaction between members of these committees and commissions is very beneficial to all. I think face to face, person to person is the better way to operate. It also gives the public and opportunity to participate through public comment.”
Donni Steel, Treasurer for Orion Township and a Republican, said “I’m in favor of keeping open meetings act without the hybrid option, the meetings are very difficult to conduct fluidly with the hybrid option which we participated in 2020-21.”
For Novi Mayor Bob Gatt the issue is simple. “I prefer in person meetings because I believe that the public is entitled to see and hear a public body debate issues and answer questions in person,” he said.
The issue doesn’t seem to be a partisan one, as there are electeds on both sides of the aisle who have a range of opinions on the subject.
Roslyn Grafstein, Mayor of Madison Heights, also prefers in person meetings, with precautions for public health included. “Madison Heights has been meeting in person since July 2021,” she said. “I prefer in person meetings. Virtual meetings can be distracting for everyone. All participants may be distracted by what they see on screen with family members or pets coming into view while others may be distracted by something happening off camera.
“We have run into technical difficulties where people calling in cannot be heard because of microphone issues on their end, and one time we were in the middle of a vote and three of our council members lost their internet connection.
“Virtual meetings also entailed a role call vote on every item, making the meetings go longer than if they had been in person. I think that we are doing a good job with in person meetings but if we need to go back to virtual we will be able to adjust quickly and smoothly.”
Grafstein explained the safety precautions taken at Madison Heights City Hall to minimize health risks. “Prior to our first meeting of 2022, plexiglass partitions were installed between members on the dais and while we are all now wearing masks at the meeting, this is by choice.”
At the County Commission level, Commissioners are required to be in person to vote as with all public bodies, though presenters are still able to join in remotely. Chairperson Dave Woodward, a Democrat from Royal Oak, shared what he called “legislative solutions worth considering,” which are:
- A) allow remote participation under certain conditions (for illness, military service, etc.) as long a majority of the body is able to meet in person.
- B) require all remote participation by elected officials to be by video, and streamed live and recorded.
- C) require those who participate remotely to give reason and location for participation and be made part of the public record.
Democrat Charlie Cavell is the County Commissioner from Ferndale, and he thinks meeting in person makes sense for a board of their size, tackling so many issues. “Remote meetings fits as a solution for some communities, but OakGov is collaborating on keeping the County’s operations — which include policing, clean water, public health, administration of justice, job creation, and more — at full capacity while also negotiating our way thru prioritizing the $244,000,000 we received from the American Rescue Plan,” he said.
But, he’s open to it for smaller, local boards. “If we are to ensure a vibrant democracy we should open up meetings to be in-person and virtual,” he said. “The pandemic has helped us all become more aware of our government and also made different ways of being heard more commonplace, like zoom, gotomeetings, etc.
“Change is always hard — especially for politicians — but that’s not a good enough reason to make it harder for people to hold us accountable. We should use every tool available to make our government and its politics more accessible to our constituents!”
Ferndale City Councilperson Kat Bruner James has safety in mind when considering Open Meetings Act options.
“In many ways, I’m glad to be back in City Hall with my colleagues, but there should be an option for remote participation for everyone, including elected officials,” she said. “Elected officials and members of their households may have underlying conditions putting them at heightened risk of serious complications if exposed to COVID, even if vaccinated and boosted. And many have young children not yet eligible for vaccination. With the recent wave of omicron infections, many elected officials should be isolating or in quarantine. I hope that everyone is making good choices and staying home when appropriate under the current rules, but I suspect many feel pressured to shorten their isolation/quarantine, putting others at risk. Having the option to participate remotely would be safer for everyone.”
In Hazel Park, officials saw a decline in participation when meetings went from online to in person early in 2021, making City Councilperson Alissa Sullivan see value in the online meeting model.
“I strongly feel that any additional access to the public via remote or virtual attendance options, only increases public participation and in the currently climate – public safety. And that’s the goal really. The more people who participate, and participate safely, the better a board, council or commission can do their job,” Sullivan said.
“During quarantine, our virtual meetings always had multiple public attendees. In the over six months we’ve been back in person exclusively, there have been multiple meetings with no public attendance and just as many with only 1 public attendee.
“Even among other boards I’m a member of, the participation has dropped significantly once the in person requirement was back in effect. For whatever reason a person may not be able to attend in person currently, be it schedule or health, allowing the expansion of virtual access in OMA, alleviates many of those issues. I would strongly support the expansion of continued virtual access for increased transparency, safety, and the opportunity for access it offers to the public, that goes for all levels of government.”
As technology changes and as more members of the public find themselves engaging online, the topic is not likely to disappear.
“We are all sort of building the plane while flying, so it truly is a learning experience,” said Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett.
“I think we need to play it by ear,” Barnett said, adding that “Communities should be able to be flexible in deciding what format works best for them.”
The decision isn’t made by local officials however.
It lies with the Michigan legislature, which did not have enough votes to extend the temporary rules that allowed for remote participation due to the emergency of COVID. While the pandemic is not over, State Representative Regina Weiss, a Democrat from Oak Park, says there isn’t likely to be any more consideration of the issue in the near future.
“There’s a lot of COVID fatigue,” she said. “I think some people in Lansing just want it to be over and for ‘normalcy’ to return. Any topic having to do with COVID is so politicized that I don’t think there is enough support for it to be reconsidered.”
Weiss and her colleagues in the State House never switched to remote meetings, though she said there have been times when sessions were cancelled due to COVID quarantines impacting staff and members.
While it may not be on the immediate radar of legislators, the debate continues among officials and the public at the local level. But much like those building the plane while it’s flying, whether remote meetings really take off or not is still up in the air.