GT County Commission To Resume In-Person Meetings Wednesday
By Beth Milligan | Oct. 6, 2020
Grand Traverse County commissioners will resume in-person meetings Wednesday – though nearly half the board is opting to continue participating remotely.
Commissioners will meet in person in the Governmental Center commission chambers at 8am Wednesday. According to County Administrator Nate Alger, four commissioners plan to attend in person, while another three commissioners will participate remotely (Alger did not identify which commissioners will attend in which format). Anyone attending the meeting in person will be asked COVID-19 screening questions at the door of the Governmental Center before entering and will be required to wear a mask during the meeting. According to staff, some seating will be available to the public within the commission chambers, with a designated overflow room available in the Governmental Center basement that will live stream the meeting. Members of the public can make public comment from either room, or can also call in to give public comment remotely.
County Deputy Civil Counsel Kit Tholen says he advised the commission to resume holding in-person meetings effective immediately after the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s emergency orders Friday. Whitmer’s orders included provisions allowing government bodies to meet remotely, lifting requirements that they meet at a physical location, according to Tholen. Without those orders in place, Tholen says the county could be violating the Open Meetings Act (OMA) by continuing to meet remotely. "I cannot advise the board to meet virtually without lawful authority from the governor or legislature," Tholen says.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) issued a separate emergency order Monday reinforcing the statewide mask mandate and limiting indoor gathering sizes, among other restrictions. Under the order, masks are required when attending indoor gatherings, defined as any occurrence where persons from multiple households are present in a shared space in a group of two or more. In the Traverse City region, indoor meeting venues with fixed seating are limited to 25 percent of normal capacity. The order mandates "businesses and government offices to enforce those requirements for gatherings on their premises." The challenge for government boards is that while they could violate the MDHHS order by holding meetings that are too large or that have attendees who aren’t wearing masks, they could also run afoul of OMA by limiting public attendance or access at their meetings.
The restrictions on indoor meeting sizes prompted Traverse City Manager Marty Colburn and City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht to advise city commissioners this week to continue meeting remotely. For Tholen’s part, because the MDHHS order doesn’t specify that government boards can meet remotely, he remains concerned doing so would violate OMA. However, he also acknowledges that commissioners could violate the MDHHS order by holding meetings with too many people in attendance.
"The general rule of conflicting laws is that they are to be read 'harmoniously' unless there is an inescapable conflict," Tholen says. "These laws can exist harmoniously, so long as sufficient space is made available. It does not seem advisable to me to preemptively violate the Open Meetings Act based on a concern that more people will attend than we can accommodate. The county has gone to great lengths to accommodate a large number of people, if that number in fact choose to attend (Wednesday)."
County commissioners including Gordie LaPointe, Ron Clous, and Brad Jewett have previously expressed their desire to return to in-person meetings. Commissioners Bryce Hundley and Betsy Coffia, meanwhile, have expressed skepticism about the move. Coffia tells The Ticker she plans to participate remotely in Wednesday’s meeting. "I am very concerned that returning to in-person meetings puts commissioners and staff in jeopardy, particularly since there is disagreement among commissioners on the effectiveness of mask wearing and physical distancing," she says. "I had major surgery less than three months ago and am still in recovery, and I am not willing to risk my health by returning to in-person meetings."Comment