LANSING, MI – Guidance on public and virtual meetings could be headed to local governments across the state after the passage of a bill in the legislature.
In the wake of the Michigan Supreme Court striking down Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive orders last week, a handful of local entities quickly nixed public meetings scheduled to be held via Zoom. Whitmer’s executive orders allowed public bodies to hold electronic meetings since March. Remotely held meetings of public bodies could otherwise violate the Open Meetings Act.
Senate Bill 1108, sponsored by state Sen. Lana Theis, R-Brighton, would permit virtual public meetings as long as the local government declares a state of emergency. It passed 85-16 during House a session Tuesday, Oct. 13.
It passed 36-1 in the Senate later Tuesday night. The bill now heads to Whitmer’s desk for final consideration.
The legislation would allow for virtual meetings by local governments until December 2021. The bill also seeks to clear up the question of whether local governments violated the Open Meetings Act after April 30, since the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated Whitmer’s executive orders after that date.
The bill also replaces elements of Whitmer’s executive order allowing for virtual meetings. Those include requiring an explanation within 18 hours of the meeting for why it needs to be held virtually, ensuring two-way communication for members to hear each other, posting agenda updates online and establishing how the public can view meetings.
There were dissenting comments from both Republican and Democratic representatives that signaled lingering issues with elements of the bill.
In its current form, the bill would allow members of public bodies to remotely tune in and vote during in-person meetings under certain circumstances, including required military duty, a medical condition or a state of emergency that would “risk the personal health or safety of members of the public or the public body,” according to analysis from the House Fiscal Agency.
The last two provisions prompted proposed amendments by Rep. Beau LaFave, R-Iron Mountain. He suggested that medical conditions must require quarantine to allow an absence by a local official. If that person is hospitalized, he also suggested they be required to be in hospital within 100 miles of the public meeting to be involved in the vote.
“There’s no requirement that the individual be even sick with COVID-19,” he said on the House floor. “They could’ve broken their leg, and could avoid the scrutiny of the public and get around the Open Meetings Act and the transparency to the public that goes along with it.”
Lastly, the state of emergency should be one linked to the COVID-19 pandemic, and not something such as flooding or fires, he proposed. The amendment was denied.
Additionally, Rep. Matt Koleszar, D-Plymouth, offered an amendment calling for the allowance of virtual meetings until March 2022, rather than the end of next year. That amendment was also scrapped.
Local municipalities have been dealing with the issue of meeting virtually since last week’s Supreme Court decision. On Monday, Oct. 12, Lansing City Council canceled its meeting “out of an abundance of caution,” assuming that the alternative to virtual meetings was gathering in person.
“We are simply not able set up a safe environment for in-person public participation before the meetings,” wrote Peter Spadafore, Lansing City Council president, in a statement. “Combined with today’s ruling and absent clarity from the Michigan Legislature, it is not clear we could satisfy the requirements of the Michigan Open Meetings Act virtually…I encourage lawmakers to swiftly pass legislation aimed at clarifying the Open Meetings Act during a global pandemic.”
From city councils in Ann Arbor and Jackson to boards in Washtenaw and Genesee counties, government officials have been canceling meetings and awaiting passage of new legislation.
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