Local municipalities wait for word on virtual meetings

Published 4:01 pm Tuesday, October 13, 2020

SOUTHWEST MICHIGAN — Michigan Supreme Court rulings Monday and earlier this month throwing out many of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders have local governments and school districts scrambling for answers.

Area government and school district leaders were already wondering how they would move forward with public meetings after the Supreme Court’s Oct. 2 ruling that Whitmer did not have authority to issue executive orders after April 30. Monday, the high court denied Whitmer’s request to extend her orders for 28 days.

The Monday ruling caused cancellation of a number of meetings including the one scheduled for the Buchanan City Commission. Buchanan Mayor Patricia Moore announced Monday night to those on the virtual feed that the meeting was canceled and would be rescheduled later in the week. They did so on advice from the Michigan Municipal League.

New City Manager Heather Grace said afterwards that the concern was that they could be in violation of the Open Meetings Act if they hosted the meeting before legislation was passed restoring the validity of virtual meetings. That legislation was passed by the state senate last week and was scheduled for a vote in the state house Tuesday.

Outgoing City Manager Bill Marx said Tuesday that if the legislation passed later that day, the plan was for the City Commission to hold a work session followed by a regular meeting today, Wednesday. If hosted, the work session is set to start at 6 p.m. and the commission meeting at 7 p.m.

In recent weeks, the Buchanan commission’s meetings, like many municipalities throughout southwest Michigan, have been hybrid with commissioners meeting at City Hall and the public accessing the meeting via Zoom. The hybrid meetings where the commission meets and the public Zoom in were allowed under the executive order. However, the Supreme Court’s action puts those meetings in question.

In Cass County, County Board Chairman Roseann Marchetti said her board is also watching what is going on in Lansing. The county received an alert from the Michigan Association of Counties Monday after the Supreme Court ruling. She also hoped that the state house would pass the legislation later Tuesday.

She noted that the legislation would amend the Open Meetings Act to allow for remote meetings in the event certain situations such as a pandemic arise. She said the county board held remote meetings in April and May and went back to them after a June open meeting. She said they have posted a Zoom meeting for 6:30 p.m. Thursday.

In Berrien County, Executive Assistant to the Administrator Annette Krieger-Christie said the county board plans to host a hybrid meeting Thursday morning. A quorum of commissioners will meet at the county administration building in St. Joseph with the rest of commissioners and the public accessing the meeting virtually via YouTube.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services already restored orders on mask wearing and the size of public gathering last week under the authority of the public health code.

Michigan Press Association Public Affairs Manager Lisa McGraw said virtual meetings have worked well for the most part during the pandemic. She said one of her organization’s ongoing concerns have been making sure the public has the ability to participate in meetings and state their opinions.

Without the legislative fix being voted on this week, she said public bodies are governed by the Open Meetings Act which does not allow for virtual/remote meetings as written.

“That means in person meetings with people able to participate,” she said. “If people can’t come, it’s not a proper meeting.”

Editor’s note: Tuesday, after the story was originally published, the legislation was passed.