Farmington Hills city council members postponed a decision to return to live meetings, but will probably start looking each other in the eye next month.
Officials in March extended a local state of emergency through June 30, which allowed them to continue remote meetings. Because of pandemic gathering limits, they’ve been meeting via teleconference or videoconference since March 2020.
Social distance, plexiglass options
City Clerk Pam Smith presented several options to start Monday’s regular meeting conversation:
- Additional space between seats in the chamber
- Plexiglass on the dais between council/board members and staff
- Masks for those who want one
- Live-streaming regular session meetings
Smith said the planning commission, zoning board and other groups will follow the council’s decision.
“Social distancing can be a little difficult with the larger boards,” Smith said, “so we are ready to implement plexiglass if we need to… in order to allow people to still sit up at the dais and still have that comfort level if that’s wanted.”
‘We need to set an example’
Council member Valerie Knol, who broached the topic at a previous meeting, said many other cities have been meeting in person “for a long time.”
“The bulk of the public is back, or allowed to be back,” she said. “I think it’s time for us to go back. I don’t want to keep living in fear. I think we need to set an example.”
Others didn’t seem to have the same level of confidence. With immune-compromised family, council member Mary Newlin said she still wears a mask and gloves despite being vaccinated. She requested officials provide proof of vaccination.
“I have an issue sitting within six feet of someone who may be causing a hazard,” she said.
Mayor Vicki Barnett supported live meetings, but has a special reason for still exercising caution.
“I would feel comfortable if council was social distanced at the dais, with staff just below or beside us,” she said. “I know what the science says, but I have a new grandson and he is not vaccinated and can’t be for a couple of years.”
Open Meetings Act considerations
Governor Gretchen Whitmer said in May that all COVID-19 limitations will end July 1. If gathering limits remain, city attorney Steve Joppich said, the Open Meetings Act could complicate in-person meetings.
“You have to let everybody in who wants to be there,” he said. “Occupancy limits might create some challenges.”
Barnett said that if officials continue to live-stream meetings on YouTube.com, staff could set up overflow screens in hallways or outdoors. She suggested holding study sessions in a spacious second floor dining room.
Creating distance for planning and zoning commissioners would require some to sit off the dais, Smith said. City staff and consultants would move into the audience.
Knol said staff should ask people about their comfort levels and seat them based on individual needs. Barnett wanted to see a proposed layout for each group.
“I really am reluctant to extend the state of emergency and meet at home, when the science has shown it’s totally unnecessary for us to do that,” she said.
Officials will take up this issue again during their June 28 meeting.