Questions raised about when public meetings can resume

BURTON — For months, the Burton City Council and other city committees have been meeting virtually, but some questions have arisen about when and if the city can return to holding in-person public meetings.

Councilwoman Tina Conley asked the city attorney Feb. 1 if the city council could resume in-person meetings once the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHSS) emergency order expires Feb. 21.

“I was just wondering when our meetings were going to start up at city hall,” she asked. “Is it going to be after Feb. 21? “

City Attorney Amanda Doyle said Feb. 21 is the most recent date the city has been given, but whether that will stand or not depends on the MDHSS.

Currently, Doyle said the only thing that has changed in the state’s orders is bars and restaurants can be open with 25 percent seating capacity until 10 p.m. Other than that, she said there have been few changes in the rules, and it remains to be seen if anything will be lifted after Feb. 21.

“Until the 21st we won’t know for sure whether it’s still the 21st,” said Doyle, “or if it’s now some other date.”

Councilman Vaughn Smith said the governor can determine how governmental bodies can meet.

He said he understands the city is meeting virtually now because it is how the state required public meetings to take place during the lockdown.

“The governor is going to tell us when we can go back to in-person, correct?” he asked Doyle.

She responded by saying that is her understanding and she noted that Burton City Council is “not one of the exceptions.”

“We are not a funeral, we are not a gathering listed as an exception,” she said. “So right now, we cannot be meeting.”

Doyle said she knows some municipalities are disregarding that and while some are getting away with defying the state mandate, others have been made an example of.

On Dec. 15, a Michigan State Police sergeant shutdown a meeting at the Thetford Township Hall which violated the state’s coronavirus order.

“It’s hard,” Doyle said. “I wish I could give you some solid legal advice here, but right now it appears it would be unwise to hold an in-person council meeting.”

Smith agreed, saying he didn’t think it was the kind of publicity Burton wanted to have.

The way the MDHSS order reads, if a public body holds an in-person meeting before April 1, (or after the DHHS order expires on Feb. 22, assuming it is not extended) it must “adhere to social distancing and mitigation measures and adopt heightened standards of facility cleaning in line with recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

Starting April 1, and continuing through 2021, public bodies may conduct electronic meetings only if a member of the public body is absent due to military duty, a health condition, or a statewide or local state of emergency/state of disaster.