Michigan Governor Whitmer Temporarily Suspends Certain Open Meetings Act Requirements During COVID-19 Emergency

open-meetings-act-coronavirusTo “flatten the curve” of the coronavirus outbreak, many Americans have been ordered to shelter-in-place and practice social distancing. Those restrictions, however, have caused Michigan’s governor to authorize remote participation in public meetings.

Permission to Conduct Remote Public Meetings

In response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Governor Gretchen Whitmer issued Executive Order 2020-15, a measure that temporarily relaxes some key requirements of Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (OMA). The order seeks to further reduce the need for contact among members of the public while allowing the business of the public to continue with open access.

The executive order applies to any entity to which the OMA applies, including municipal councils and boards. From March 18, 2020, through April 15, 2020 (or longer if Michigan’s “Stay Home, Stay Safe” order is extended), Section 3 of the OMA will no longer require those bodies to comply. Instead, public boards and entities may hold their meetings through entirely electronic means so that no member of need physically appear.

Other OMA Changes

Public meetings must be held in a manner that permits two-way communication, thus preserving important public comment periods. Not only should members of the general public be able to hear their officials, but they should also be able to interact with officials in the spirit of transparency. The executive order provides that a board “may use technology to facilitate typed public comments that may be read to or shared with members of the public body and other participants.” This, too, would provide for additional means of interaction between the public and the entities, although the entities may still set reasonable rules regulating public comment.

Under the executive order, notice must be given to the public that such a meeting is to occur, and the manner in which it will take place, the technological platform to be used, and details of the procedure the public will use to comment or ask questions. The OMA does not currently require that an entity post an agenda before a meeting, but the executive order encourages it and roll call votes to avoid confusion.

Requisite Monthly Board of Education Meetings

The executive order suspends the statutory requirement that boards of education hold at least one meeting per month for the duration of the stay-at-home order. The order specifically states that its provisions “will prevail over any conflicting provision of a local charter, ordinance or rule.” Although it would have been preferable to also refer to school district bylaws or policies, the order presumably includes them within the “rule” category.

Kreis Enderle Is Available to Respond to Your Legal Needs

If you have questions about Open Meetings Act compliance or other municipal or business law issues brought on by COVID-19 pandemic and Michigan’s shelter-in-place order, our attorneys are here to counsel you. We are working remotely during the crisis and have various communications technologies at our disposal.

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