Michigan Press Association wary of Whitmer electronic meeting order during COVID-19

Measure earns GOP criticism, Dem praise

Michigan Capitol | Susan J. Demas

A new state directive on how public bodies should conduct meetings during a pandemic quickly garnered praise from the Michigan Municipal League (MML) and Democratic lawmakers, while the Michigan Press Association (MPA) and GOP state leadership expressed concerns about public transparency.

As part of the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Wednesday night signed Executive Order 2020-15, which temporarily alters the Open Meetings Act to allow public bodies to conduct meetings electronically until 11:59 p.m. April 15.

The order comes with a set of requirements, including guidelines she said were meant to facilitate public access and participation.

“During this crisis, we must ensure that public officials can do their job to meet the needs of residents, while also ensuring that meetings remain open, accessible and transparent to the public,” Whitmer said in a statement upon announcing the measure.

Dan Gilmartin, CEO and executive director of the MML, had already called on state officials Monday to to quickly allow city and village councils and other local governments to hold virtual meetings when possible.

In a statement after the order was announced, Gilmartin said the MML is “pleased that Governor Whitmer has provided us with the clear ability to use remote-access-technology for necessary community meetings.”

MML CEO Dan Gilmartin | Nick Manes

Gilmartin said that while many public meetings are being canceled, it is important for essential local government business to still be conducted — and should be conducted in the ways outlined in Whitmer’s executive order to ensure public access and participation.

In a statement Thursday morning in response to Whitmer’s order, Michigan Press Association (MPA) Public Affairs Manager Lisa McGraw outlined what the MPA feels are crucial practices to “keep the tenants of the Open Meetings Act in place during this time.”

This includes:

  • Deferring what can be deferred and addressing only absolutely necessary items
  • Ensuring that the public has the ability to hear all participants and participate themselves
  • Proper notice
  • Making agendas and meeting packets available online in advance of meetings

The statement noted that if the local public body does not have an online presence, they should run notices of the meeting, a meeting agenda and information on how people can participate in their local newspapers.

“We feel that the topics being discussed and the speed with which things are moving warrants additional safeguards for notifying the public,” the statement reads.

MPA Executive Director James Tarrant wrote in an op-ed earlier this week that the association will be monitoring how closely local governments and school officials follow the guidelines, and recommended that “violations [of the Open Meetings Act] should be challengeable up to 90 days after the emergency is declared over to allow for proper review of any questionable scenarios.”

The Legislature is meeting amid coronavirus. Some lawmakers are worried.

In an email to the Advance, McGraw did not say directly whether the MPA supports or opposes Whitmer’s executive order.

“The MPA “[has] concerns and would like to see the 90 day appeal post emergency just in case but understand the need for the options outlined in the EO,” McGraw said.

McGraw added that “while we understand these are extraordinary times, we also feel the need for transparency is crucial now more than ever.”

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey | Nick Manes

Michigan Senate Republicans also expressed concerns about potential impacts to transparency.

In a statement Wednesday night, Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) said, “The Senate Republican Caucus is deeply concerned about Executive Order 2020-15 to alter requirements under the Open Meetings Act. We believe this order may limit the public’s ability to participate in the democratic process.”

Shirkey continues by calling on Whitmer “to provide greater guidance to ensure elected bodies do not hinder public input by choosing to conduct business via technology that may be inaccessible for some citizens,” adding that older Michigan residents are the most at-risk for COVID-19 and the least likely to have necessary technology to access electronic meetings.

“We are concerned this order from our Governor may place unanticipated restrictions on an individual’s ability to redress their government. We are willing to work with our Governor to improve the order to ensure elected bodies do not inadvertently limit public input,” Shirkey said.

But House Minority Leader Christine Greig (D-Farmington Hills) released a statement of her own in short order praising Whitmer’s action.

House Minority Christine Greig after the State of the State address, Jan. 29, 2020 | Andrew Roth

“Governor Whitmer’s decisive action was necessary and should be commended. Having said that, this is an issue the legislature should have acted more quickly to address, and I hope that we can do so in a bipartisan way without further delay. That’s what the people of Michigan are expecting from legislators during this time of crisis,” Greig wrote.

State Sens. Mallory McMorrow (D-Royal Oak) and Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) also weighed in with their support for the measure while pushing back on the GOP leadership’s criticism.

In a tweet, Moss quoted part of Shirkey’s statement and added: “Have I got some bills for you! … Ten bills to be exact that finally subject the Legislature & Governor to the principles of #FOIA [Freedom of Information Act]. Happy #SunshineWeek!”

McMorrow also weighed in on Twitter, arguing that shifting meetings to online actually opens them up to more public participation. She added that her grandmother regularly streams Senate sessions.