Farmington city council members on Monday split over a proposed resolution that would ask Governor Gretchen Whitmer to suspend Open Meetings Act (OMA) requirements and allow “virtual meetings”.
Mayor Pro Tem Joe LaRussa, who proposed the measure, and council members Maria Taylor and David DeLind, voted in favor; Mayor Sara Bowman and council member Steven Schneemann opposed.
LaRussa raised the issue over concerns about the spread of Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), which could prevent the council from taking action due to lack of a quorum.
City attorney Thomas Schultz explained that Whitmer, as part of an executive order, suspended the OMA as it relates to state directors and agencies. While some communities where officials have trouble getting a quorum hoped it would help them, the directive specifically mentions only state agencies, he said.
Townships versus cities
“Municipal lawyers have looked at that and said she could have helped us if she wanted to,” Schultz said, adding he has not heard of any other municipalities passing a similar resolution.
“Are you suggesting that we do not meet in person?” Bowman asked.
“I’m asking for the governor to enable us to have that discussion,” LaRussa said. “I would propose for those who want to exercise that option to have it available to them… This is not a matter of convenience, this is a matter of public safety.”
Not having the option, Taylor said, could result in the city not approving contracts and losing out on opportunities that council members were unable to consider and approve.
Schultz said an association of townships has issued guidance that allows remote attendance at meetings while the Michigan Municipal League, which represents cities, “has been adamant that it is not.”
A number of townships can’t get a quorum unless someone remotely accesses the meeting, he added.
“Our advice is always going to be if she doesn’t absolve you of compliance with the OMA, remoting in is not something you should do. If she says it’s okay, we’d have you adopt another policy as to how you’re going to do that,” Schultz said.
‘Fast and loose’ with OMA
Bowman said she is uncomfortable “playing fast and loose” with the Open Meetings Act. While the city may eventually be in the same boat with others in having a majority of council members ill or quarantined, she said, “I’m just not there yet.”
“I think it’s always better to be prepared than to be scrambling,” Taylor said, adding that a council member could potentially infect a staff member, which could affect city operations.
Bowman was also concerned with adding another burden to an already taxed city staff. “That’s not where I want our resources going now.”
“We’re not changing our operating procedures,” LaRussa said. “I don’t think it’s a gross misuse of our leadership to make a request to extend something that’s already been extended to state level directors and agencies.”
Schultz said without a quorum, the city could declare a state of emergency, which would allow officials to do some things they would otherwise not be able to do. Remote meetings, he said, should be a “last resort”.
“I think it’s not something you should even consider until it happens,” he said. “The only question is, do you want to ask the governor to give you that authority, could she include you in her executive order, so you can have that discussion later.”
LaRussa offered to help draft the resolution, which Schultz estimated would take about an hour for his office to put together.