Traverse City News and Events

County Commissioners Quietly Nix Remote Public Comment

By Beth Milligan | April 13, 2021

Grand Traverse County commissioners Tuesday quietly nixed remote public comment at all county commission meetings going forward - a move that occurred with no advance public notice after Commission Vice Chair Ron Clous added the rule change last-minute to an equalization meeting agenda.

The equalization meeting - which typically draws few attendees and had no public commenters Tuesday - only had one listed agenda item, the presentation and approval of the county's annual equalization report. During agenda approval, Clous asked to add "board rules" as a new discussion item on the agenda. That motion passed 6-1, with Commissioner Betsy Coffia opposed on the grounds the public did not have advance notice of other potential topics being discussed. After the item was added, Clous made a motion to amend the board rules to strike accommodations for remote public comment at commission meetings, requiring anyone giving public comment going forward to do so in person at the Governmental Center.

Clous did not offer a reason for making the motion, but after Commissioner Penny Morris said the change would help solve the "trainwreck" technical issues the county incurred at its last meeting, Clous agreed. "This would take care of that," he said. "(The public) would know they would have to show up." Chair Rob Hentschel said remote public comment was allowing people to call in "from Canada and Puerto Rico" and tell commissioners how to run Grand Traverse County, and that limiting comments to in-person would ensure commissioners know "you're visiting here or from here." Hentschel also said the public could still email and call commissioners to weigh in on county business if they didn't feel comfortable participating in person. Meetings are also still planned to be livestreamed.

Commissioners voted 5-2 to pass the rule change, with Coffia and Commissioner Bryce Hundley opposed. Hundley said he couldn't support the change given that "we're spiking pretty hard (in coronavirus cases) in Michigan." Coffia echoed those remarks and said it was unfair to require residents to come and be in a room for several hours in order to give public comment, particularly with several commissioners declining to wear masks at meetings. "Our convenience as a board is not more important than public health and safety," she said, adding that the change was "cutting off" a way for taxpayers to weigh in on county decision-making. "There's a reason it got placed on a Tuesday morning agenda when no one's here."

County Deputy Civil Counsel Kit Tholen said the rule change was legal, noting that Michigan law requires public comment to be taken, and for it to be set for a time and place, but does not require it to be taken remotely. "This is just changing the time, place, and manner of it, so I wouldn't have legal concerns with this change," he said. The county is required to legally accommodate however many attendees show up, Tholen noted, with staff estimating the current capacity for public comment at the Governmental Center with social distancing at 25. "If we have 26, we may need to adjourn the meeting and show up at a later time," Tholen said.

Questions arose Tuesday over whether the equalization meeting itself was properly noticed to the public. The meeting agenda packet listed an incorrect livestream link that led to an internal county website page with no video recording available. After staff were alerted to the invalid link, the packet was updated online at the end of the meeting Tuesday with the correct YouTube link (video of the meeting is now available here). A similar misposting of livestream links at a March planning commission meeting in Acme Township caused that board to reschedule its public hearing that night. 

Tholen said in an email to The Ticker that the phone number listed in the meeting packet was valid and allowed for public access and participation Tuesday, and that the general county meeting website also had the correct YouTube link. The meeting was also open to the public at the Governmental Center - all standards that fulfill Open Meetings Act requirements, Tholen said. "While video of the hearings is something that the county has paid for and provided for quite some time (and I believe will continue since it is valuable for the public), it is not a legal requirement," Tholen noted.

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