Many counties are turning to declaring states of emergency so that they may continue to meet virtually as the blanket ability for public bodies to hold virtual meetings for any reason will sunset effective March 31.
Under PA 254 of 2020, localities were given the ability to host virtual meetings under the state’s Open Meetings Act for any reason until the end of March as a measure to ensure county boards of commissioners, school boards, city councils, township boards and other public bodies could meet without risking spread of COVID-19. After Wednesday, however, virtual meetings could only be utilized should an individual be serving active military duty, have a medical condition or if the locality or Michigan itself had declared a state of emergency.
Following January 1, 2022, the statute would only allow for virtual meetings accommodation for members absent for military duty.
Derek Melot, spokesperson for the Michigan Association of Counties, said Tuesday that the group has sent a yes-no survey to all 83 counties in the state asking them to indicate if they will be declaring a state of emergency for their jurisdiction.
Of the 55 counties that have responded thus far, 37 have indicated that they either have a state of emergency already in place or are expecting to have one in place by Wednesday. A majority of the non-responders are located in northern Michigan or in the Thumb. But their unresponsiveness should not be viewed as an indication as to whether they are or are not adopting a state of emergency, Mr. Melot said, simply that they have not responded to the survey as of Tuesday afternoon.
There are both pros and cons of returning to holding in-person meetings, as there is with keeping meetings mostly virtual, said MAC Governmental Affairs Associate Meghann Keit-Corrion.
“There are likely parts of the state that want to return to in-person, and that’s fine if they observe state health requirements before returning to in-person,” Ms. Keit-Corrion said. “I think it’s about wanting to get back to a sense of normalcy, but we’ve seen our members really evolve and adapt, and we’ve seen an increase in participation (in virtual meetings). We may see that continue, to really increase transparency and engage with the community.”
In Wayne County, a state of emergency has been declared through May 31. County officials noted in a statement that it has seen a 235 percent increase in COVID-19 cases since mid-February, with Wayne County Public Health Officer Carol Austerberry saying the jurisdiction “cannot yet afford to let our guard down.”
For some however, especially regarding connectivity issues in the more rural and northern parts of the state, the drawbacks outweigh the positives. Mike Selden, director of member information services at the Michigan Townships Association, said that he believes several rural townships might begin to hold in-person meetings mostly out of ease of access for their membership.
As some of these township meetings are already quite small in the first place, the ability for these bodies to comply with state guidelines – which currently limit gatherings to no more than 25 people, while socially distanced – is easier to comply with when compared to the hardship of accessing a steady internet connection or having clear cell phone service.
But, Mr. Selden acknowledged, that may not be the case for townships with larger jurisdictions that know their body, aides and possible meeting attendees could surpass that allowance threshold, especially on the chance an association is discussing a particularly heated topic.
Because townships would be covered under a county’s jurisdiction should it decide to declare a state of emergency, Mr. Selden said the association did not have clear data on how many townships specifically have enacted emergency status. Townships would still have the option, however, of choosing to host an in-person public meeting even if their county decided to declare a state of emergency.
“As long as precautions are taken into account to the current restrictions, I think for most townships there’s not as much fear there for them having spread at their meetings,” Mr. Selden said, of the coronavirus. “The makeup is going to be different across the board, but hopefully, even with cases going up, we’re on the downhill slide for everything and after a meeting or two things will get better as people are able to get vaccinated and work through this more.”
There are, however, some who are choosing to issue states of emergency out of fear of the recent COVID-19 uptick across the state.
In Detroit – which was hit early and hard by the COVID-19 pandemic – officials have declared a state of emergency through May 31 as it continues to battle not just a general uptick in cases but a rise in B.1.1.7 variants as well.
Denise Fair, the city’s chief public health officer, noted that COVID-19 cases have more than doubled from February 7 through February 13 when compared to March 14 through March 20, jumping from 302 last month to 804 cases as of last week. The positivity rate in the city has also risen from 3.2 percent to 7 percent over that same six-week period.
“A number of public bodies in Detroit that are subject to the Open Meetings Act will find it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct live meetings open to the public without violating CDC safety guidelines, so we needed to act now,” Ms. Fair said in a statement. “We recognize the importance of conducting open and transparent government meetings, but we need to do so in a manner that does not jeopardize the public’s health and safety.”
Michigan is currently experiencing a third wave of COVID-19 cases.
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