Local governments across Michigan are in limbo following a state Supreme Court ruling, uncertain whether they’ll be able to keep holding public meetings virtually.
The court last Friday, Oct. 2, struck down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s authority to continue Michigan’s state of emergency amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It’s the state of emergency that has empowered Whitmer to unilaterally issue orders like allowing public bodies to hold electronic meetings since March.
After several months of livestreaming meetings using platforms like Zoom, elected officials around the state are now wondering if they’re going to be forced to return to in-person meetings.
“Things got even more interesting in this incredibly strange year,” said Ann Arbor City Council Member Ali Ramlawi as the issue came up during a virtual council meeting Monday night.
While the governor said Friday her orders remain in effect for 21 more days and the Michigan Municipal League has advised cities they can continue to meet virtually during that time, some elected bodies are moving to cancel meetings or return to in-person meetings due to a lack of clarity on the issue.
The Lansing City Council and Washtenaw County Board of Commissioners are among bodies that canceled their meetings this week due to the uncertainty.
“Our goal has been and continues to be that we serve as good stewards, not only of the work of running Washtenaw County government, but also good stewards of the health and safety of our staff and residents,” said Washtenaw County Board Chairman Jason Morgan, D-Ann Arbor.
“We’re postponing our agenda items until our next meeting out of an abundance of caution. We want to ensure we have clarity from the state of Michigan on our legal ability to meet virtually and we are still following the science and abiding by the orders of both our county and state health departments.”
COVID-19 is still a very real threat, added Washtenaw County Administrator Greg Dill.
“Until there is a vaccine or a cure, we will continue to take all the necessary precautions to keep everyone safe as we continue to handle (the) business of running Washtenaw County,” he said.
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Grand Blanc Township near Flint held its first in-person meeting in months on Tuesday, Oct. 6.
Supervisor Scott Bennett said the township decided to follow direction it received from the Michigan Townships Association and others in making the decision.
“We have business we need to take care of,” Bennett said, adding the township is following Michigan Department of Health and Human Services requirements.
“We’re following the guidelines for the number of people in the room,” he said, noting the township set up an overflow area in case more than 25 people showed up and it still has a livestream for those who don’t want to attend in person.
It went well Tuesday night, Bennett said.
State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor, said state lawmakers are scrambling to address the issue of public meetings and he expects a vote on a proposal Thursday, Oct. 8.
Kirk Profit, a state lobbyist for local governments, said the Supreme Court decision has caused considerable confusion, but he expects a bill on the governor’s desk by the end of next week. It should move through the Senate this week and then it will go to the House next week, he said.
Lynn Sutfin, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, said she’s not aware of any plans for a DHHS order on the matter. The department can issue orders to prohibit gatherings for any purpose and may establish procedures to ensure continuation of essential public health services and enforcement of health laws.
In the meantime, local governments and their legal offices are still wrestling with the issue and taking different approaches.
Kalamazoo City Attorney Clyde Robinson talked about it during a City Commission meeting on Monday.
The court decision “has thrown the whole issue of virtual meetings into a bit of a gray area,” Robinson said.
“The question becomes, can we continue to meet virtually or can we have some type of hybrid approach or are we going to return to regular face-to-face meetings? That is a question that is up in the air,” he said.
Kalamazoo County officials said their next meeting still will be virtual and they’ll revisit the issue in November.
In Jackson, city officials say they haven’t formalized any plans to return to in-person council meetings and they’re still planning to meet virtually next week, though the city’s Administrative Hearings Bureau has been conducting in-person meetings since August with COVID-19 restrictions.
If the council does return to in-person meetings, the city has guidelines for social distancing, masks and hygiene, said Jackson city spokesman Aaron Dimick.
The Grand Rapids City Commission meeting scheduled for next week will remain virtual, said city spokesman Steve Guitar. The city attorney’s office is still reviewing the court decision.
Bennett said virtual meetings worked fairly well for Grand Blanc Township, but they have limited the number of people who could give public input on issues.
“Not everybody has the best technology for online meetings. We still represent them, too,” he said.
Some local governing bodies around the state have been subject to online trolls who’ve disrupted Zoom meetings, in some cases spewing hate speech.
Internet trolls spew profanity, racial slurs during first virtual Kalamazoo city meeting
In Flint, Council President Monica Galloway said she has yet to consider changing virtual meetings back to in-person meetings.
The Genesee County Board of Commissioners could discuss shifting to in-person meetings when members meet Wednesday, Oct. 7, but that meeting still will be virtual, said Director of Administration Josh Freeman.
In Saginaw, Mayor Floyd Kloc said he believes it’s best to hold the next council meeting virtually until the city can get a definitive statement from the courts, governor or Legislature.
It would be too difficult to revert back to in-person meetings on short notice, Kloc said.
“As far as I know, things are up in the air. It is going to take a little bit of time to figure out where to go and how to do it,” he said. “We might have to move somewhere else like the (Saginaw County commissioners) did. We certainly want to keep the public open meetings processes in place.”
MLive reporters Bob Johnson, McKenna Ross, Lindsay Moore, Ron Fonger, Michael Kransz and Brad Devereaux contributed to this report.
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