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Local governments face imminent end to virtual meetings under state law

Courtesy of the City of Grand Rapids

Public governing bodies across the state are facing an important deadline as COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Michigan.

An amendment to the State's Open Meetings Act, signed into law on December 23, 2020, is set to expire on March 31. The amendment allows virtual public meetings for any reason.

That means local governments and boards will have to return to in-person meetings by April 1, unless a local official or governing body, authorized by law, declares a state of emergency or state of disaster.

But a current state health department order restricts indoor meetings, including public meetings, to 25 people with six feet of social distancing. 

Jennifer Rigterink, legislative associate of the Michigan Municipal League, said the League wants to maximize flexibility for its members, some of whom will want to meet in person, some remotely and some with a hybrid of remote and in-person.

Rigterink said the League is in favor of the Legislature extending the "no reason" virtual meeting capability another three months to maximize flexibility for its members.

Summarizing three areas of concern for League members who want to continue meeting electronically, Rigterink said, "Number one, the concern is not having enough space available to accomodate up to the 25 people with the social distancing requirement. Two, it's people are not comfortable being in public settings yet until vaccines are more widely distributed. And three, it's many of our members have said they have had an increase in public participation since going to remote meetings and they want to have that capability going forward."

The City of Grand Rapids has declared a state of emergency that will allow the city's boards, commissions and committees to continue to meet electronically through June 30.

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss expressed disappointment that the state Legislature has not yet extended the ability to meet virtually. 

"So we're seeing local units of government all over the state take this upon themselves to make sure they're able to meet virtually at least for the next two to three months," Bliss said.

According to the Michigan Association of Counties, a growing number of counties are declaring states of emergency.  Derek Melot, MAC's communications director, said 33 of the 49 Michigan counties that had so far replied to his inquiry have a state of emergency in place or plan to adopt one this month. 

Several bills that would extend the March 31 sunset provision have not moved out of committee since their initial introduction in the state House and Senate.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey did not respond to a request for comment about the bills.

Virginia Gordan has been a part-time reporter at Michigan Radio since fall 2013. She has a general beat covering news topics from across the state.
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