When the state reopens, city councils decide how to proceed after a year of online meetings.
In Detroit, public health officials extended the local state of emergency. This will allow local government agencies to continue holding their meetings via Zoom conference calls. An amendment to the Opens Meetings Act allows local governments to pass a state of emergency by December.
Denise Fair, the city’s public health director, said in a press release that the extension will reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. This will last until July 31st.
The press release cited two data points as support for the expansion: Michigan remains in second place nationwide in the number of B.1.1.7 variants. And the “spread of the SARS-CoV-2 variants in Detroit and surrounding communities as well as the current vaccination rates; Certain face-to-face meetings pose significant risk to members of the public and government agencies in the City of Detroit. “
“Several government agencies in Detroit have directly communicated the desire to hold hybrid meetings with personal and virtual components because of the lack of space to physically distance themselves,” Fair said in the press release. “We recognize the importance of open and transparent government meetings, but we must do so in a way that does not endanger the health and safety of the public.”
Fair said public bodies covered by the law should avoid face-to-face meetings to avoid the risk of spread.
Here is Detroit’s guide to participating in Zoom public comment.
Other cities will return to the pre-pandemic norm: Grand Rapids enters its chamber on July 13, while Dearborn has been in person for weeks. If a resident wanted to make a public comment, they had to be physically present at the meeting. Some “personal” cities have a remote option, but it is not live. For example, in Grand Rapids, you can send an email with your comment.
Activists in Dearborn said during the meetings that this was inaccessible and are calling for a hybrid option, which means people can still zoom in to meetings during public commentary.
A Dearborn resident said during a meeting on Jan.
“And I shouldn’t be here. I’m disabled and in constant pain. I come here after an eight-hour shift. I’m burned out. I’m burned out,” she said.
While our homes are full of dirty water and without electricity, we were not even offered remote access to this meeting to express our concerns.
We had Zoom MTGs for 1 year. The truth is, they do NOT want to hear from us. Not when we ask for 4 anti-racist guidelines and not when we ask for 4 help https://t.co/IXwqFGWF0a
– Accountability for Dearborn #BLM #DefundtheDP (@DearbornAccount) June 30, 2021
Dearborn City Council President Susan Dabaja did not respond to requests for comments. However, according to an article in the Free Press in May, she spoke out in favor of going in person during a meeting.
Troy is an example of a hybrid city: officials are personal while residents can speak over Zoom calls during public commentary, as confirmed by Troy’s community affairs director Cindy Stewart.
Jennifer Rigterink is a member of the Michigan Municipal League, a nonprofit that serves hundreds of communities.
“Many of our municipalities want to continue to allow a virtual option for their meetings. They believe that they are more transparent, they get a lot more civic participation because people don’t have to travel or use a day care center and still can. “Attend the meetings from home,” she said.
She said that decision rests with each city. In some cases, they may not have the connectivity or technology to support the hybird option.
Attorney Patrick Parkes, with Kent County’s Disability Advocates, said in his personal opinion that people with disabilities generally had the opportunity to more actively participate in meetings with virtual options. But it wouldn’t have taken a pandemic to recognize these traits.
“So I think it would be a shame if these types of options weren’t continued in some form or way,” said Parkes.
“I think a lot of people are so eager to get back to how things were before the pandemic,” he added. “And in this kind of return to normal, a lot of the things we did during COVID, a lot of the modifications we made, are likely to be naturally discarded. But I think there should be an opportunity to really re-examine and say, you know, ‘Do some of the things we’ve put in have some advantages?’ ”
Regarding other, non-public comment changes, Rigterink said there was hope to adjust portions of the Open Meetings Act. For example, she said that unelected bodies, which are often voluntary, should have the opportunity to meet virtually. This can open up the chance for more people to join these boards. (She said there isn’t the same level of support for elected government officials as city council members to hold remote meetings.)
There are currently some bills in place that affect virtual meetings for certain types of bodies like commodity boards, but Rigterink said the Michigan Municipal League wanted to think bigger.
“We hope to actually sit down and have a chat with lawmakers about the best way to move forward and modernize the Open Meetings Act,” she said.