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City councils debate whether or not to go in-person

City Council rejected an austerity proposal today from Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown.
Andrew McFarlane
City Council rejected an austerity proposal today from Council President Pro Tem Gary Brown.

As the state reopens, city councils are deciding how to proceed after a year of online meetings.

In Detroit, public health officials extended a local state of emergency.

That allows local government bodies to keep holding their meetings on Zoom conference calls. An amendment in the Opens Meetings Act allows local governments to decide a state of emergency until December.

Denise Fair, the city's chief public health officer, said in a news release that the extension with reduce the risk of a COVID-19 transmission. This will last until July 31.

[Learn more about Minutes, which is making public meetings more public.]

The news release cited two data points as support for the extension: Michigan remains second in the nation in the number of B.1.1.7 variants. And the “spread of the SARS-CoV-2 variants in Detroit and surrounding communities, and current vaccination rates; certain in-person meetings pose a substantial risk to members of the public and governmental bodies in the City of Detroit.”

“Multiple governmental bodies in Detroit have directly communicated the desire to have the flexibility to hold hybrid meetings, with both in-person and virtual components due to the lack of space to be able to physically distance themselves,” Fair said in the release. “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.”

Fair said public bodies that fall under the act should avoid meeting in person to avoid the risk of spread. 

Here is Detroit's guide to participating in public comments on Zoom.

Other cities will be returning to the pre-pandemic norm: Grand Rapids is entering its chamber July 13 while Dearborn has been in-person for weeks now. If a resident wanted to make a public comment, they would have to physically be present at the meeting. Some "in-person" cities do 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 meetings that this isn't accessible, and are calling for a hybrid option, meaning people can continue to call into meetings through Zoom during public comments. 

A Dearborn resident during a May 25 meeting said while she understood the value of in-person meetings, taking away the remote option during public comments excluded voices.

"And I should not be here. I am disabled and I am in constant pain. I arrive here after an eight hour shift. I am burnt out. I am burnt out," she said.

Dearborn's City Council president Susan Dabaja did not respond to requests for comments. However, according to a Free Press article back in May, she spoke during a meeting in favor of going in-person.

Troy is one example of a city going hybrid: Officials are in-person, while residents can speak during public comments through Zoom call-ins, as confirmed by Troy's community affairs director Cindy Stewart.

Jennifer Rigterink is with the Michigan Municipal League, a non-profit association with hundreds of municipalities. 

"A lot of our municipalities are wanting to still allow for a virtual option for their meetings. They believe they're more transparent, they're getting a lot more public participation, because people are not having to travel or get daycare and still can, from their home, pariticipate in the meetings," she said. 

She said this decision was up to individual cities. In some cases, they might not have the connectivity or technology to support the hybird option.

Advocate Patrick Parkes with Disability Advocates of Kent County says in his personal opinion, more broadly speaking, individuals with disabilities have had opportunities to be more active in meetings with virtual options. But it shouldn't have taken a pandemic to recognize these features.

"So I think it would be a shame if these kind of options weren't continued in some form or fashion," Parkes said.

"I think a lot of folks are so eager to rush back to the way things were pre-pandemic," he added. "And in that kind of rush back to normalcy, so to speak, a lot of the things that we that we did during COVID, a lot of these modifications that we made, probably just naturally are discarded. But I think it should be an opportunity to really re-examine and say, you know, 'Are there some benefits from some of the things that we incorporated?'"

In regards to other, non-public comment changes, Rigterink said there is hope to adapt parts of the Open Meetings Act. For example, she said there should be an option to meet virtually for the non-elected boards, who are often volunteers. This can open up the chance for more people to participate on those boards. (She said there is not the same amount of support for elected government officials, like city council members, to have remote meetings.)

There are currently some bills out there touching on virtual meetings for certain kinds of boards, like agricultural commodity boards, but Rigterink said the Michigan Municipal League wants to think bigger.

“We're hoping is to actually sit down and have a conversation with legislators about the best way to move forward and modernize the Open Meetings Act,” she said. 

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Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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