When Will City Commission Meetings Be Held In Person Again?
By Beth Milligan | April 6, 2021
Traverse City boards and committees – including the city commission – have now met entirely virtually for more than a year due to the pandemic. While other local boards have returned to in-person meetings - such as the Grand Traverse County board of commissioners and the Traverse City Area Public Schools board - city commissioners voted Monday to extend the city’s emergency declaration and continue meeting virtually until July 31. Still, several commissioners acknowledged frustration over the loss of face-to-face deliberation and asked to revisit the topic in May to see if local vaccination and testing rates support resuming in-person meetings.
Commissioners voted unanimously Monday to extend an emergency declaration by Mayor Jim Carruthers – which was set to expire April 30 – for another three months. The order allows all city boards to meet remotely to stop the spread of COVID-19. City staff recommended extending the order until July 31 because of a CDC analysis estimating that 75 percent of U.S. citizens will have been vaccinated by that date, a level scientists have said is necessary to achieve herd immunity.
“Because commission meetings are held indoors and we have members of the commission, staff, and public (and members of their household) who have particular vulnerabilities to severe cases of COVID, as well as to help slow the spread, we recommend that the commission move forward with this declaration,” staff wrote in a memo.
City Manager Marty Colburn said Monday that the extension was “very timely” given that Grand Traverse County is experiencing record-high testing positivity and hospitalization rates, prompting the Grand Traverse County Health Department to direct all local middle and high schools to move to virtual instruction this week. “There still is a real and present danger with this disease…we should continue to be safe for awhile longer,” Colburn said.
While Colburn said a majority of city staff have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, some employees have turned it down – and vaccination levels are unknown among the dozens of members serving on various city boards, including citizen representatives. Boards impacted by the emergency declaration include the city Planning Commission, the Traverse City Downtown Development Authority, Traverse City Light & Power, the Parks and Recreation Commission, and the Human Rights Commission, among several others.
City Attorney Lauren Trible-Laucht noted privacy laws would make it difficult for the city to ask board members to disclose their vaccination status in order to gauge safety levels. Mayor Pro Tem Amy Shamroe said that without a clear idea of how widespread vaccinations are among various boards – or among members of the public wanting to attend city meetings – the city should err on the side of caution and use a consistent virtual process for all meetings. “We need to be consistent so the public knows what’s going on,” she said.
Still, while acknowledging the gravity of the pandemic and prioritization of staff and public health, several commissioners cited a desire to return to in-person meetings as soon as safely possible. Commissioner Christie Minervini said she thought commission “deliberation is impacted” by continuing to hold meetings on Zoom. Minervini said that if groups like teachers and students are primarily able to meet in-person – with occasional exceptions, like this week – city leaders should do the same. “I would support getting back into chambers and deliberating in person,” she said. Commissioner Roger Putman agreed, stating: “Having a public forum where people can go eye to eye is important.”
Other commissioners concurred, but said it was important to monitor the data and consider the overall safety and accessibility of meetings for the general community before resuming in-person gatherings – particularly given the antiquated air system at the Governmental Center, where city meetings are held. Commissioner Brian McGillivary said he was hopeful the city could “get back (to in-person meetings) at a sooner date” than July 31, but thought the decision needed to be guided by local health statistics. Most commissioners rejected the idea of using a hybrid meeting option – where attendees could come in person if they chose, or participate and give public comment remotely – saying such a format disadvantaged individuals attending virtually.
Commissioners ultimately agreed to approve the three-month emergency extension, but directed staff to bring back a report on current local health data in May to determine if the order could be lifted sooner. City Clerk Benjamin Marentette said he would include the topic on the commission’s May 17 meeting agenda. “Hopefully we’ll be in a better place then,” Marentette said. Carruthers said it was important to be cautious and patient given current outbreak levels, but echoed others’ desire for an eventual return to regular meetings. “We’re all jonesing to get back together...to get back to a normal life,” he said.Comment