LANSING, MI — After the COVID pandemic contributed to a leadership change at the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners, a Michigan lawmaker is stepping in with a plan to help members who can’t attend meetings in person.
Veronica McKissack told MLive that she tested positive for COVID on January 3, causing her to miss the in-person Board of Commissioners meeting on January 4. She would have been the deciding vote that resulted in the re-election of then-president Tracy. Hall and then Vice President Tami Rey. McKissack said she would have voted to re-elect Rey and Hall had she attended the meeting.
Instead, the vote was pushed back to the next board meeting, when another Democrat was absent. Eventually, Commissioner Mike Quinn was elected Chair and Commissioner Monteze Morales Vice-Chair.
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State Sen. Sean McCann, D – Kalamazoo, introduced a bill to help local governments manage health and safety issues surrounding government meetings. The bill would allow individual members of any state public body to participate and vote remotely at public meetings, if they have a disability or medical condition that does not allow them to attend in person.
Senate Bill 854 would amend Michigan’s Open Meetings Act, the state law that requires open meetings, to add a medical condition, including an injury, disability or other health-related condition , circumstances requiring accommodation for remote participation. The bill was submitted to the Michigan Senate on Thursday, Jan. 27, McCann’s office said.
“I have heard from local government officials in Kalamazoo County who are concerned that state law mandating in-person meetings has placed members of public agencies and the general public in dangerous positions, or in some cases, has prevented the effective conduct of important business,” Senator McCann said in a press release. “My bill states that if a local elected official or citizen council member has a medical condition or disability that prevents them from attending a business meeting in person, but is otherwise able to participate and vote, he should not be prevented from doing so. so.
“We figured out how to do this remotely, we have the technology and we know it can work.”
Public bodies were allowed to meet virtually, from 2020, under amendments to the Open Meetings Act which expired on December 31, 2021.
Boards were required to resume in-person meetings from January 1, and only members absent due to military duties can be provided with accommodation to participate remotely.
“I think COVID is forcing the world to be more flexible in thinking and problem solving to ensure health and safety,” McKissack told Mlive. “Particularly for the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners, COVID has impacted the ability of the entire board to conduct county business. I attended the meeting via Zoom and made a public comment, but was not allowed to vote as I was not in person.
McKissack said she supports legislation allowing virtual attendance to allow county work to continue, even if someone cannot be physically present.
Kalamazoo County Commissioner Jen Strebs, who left for part of the January board meeting due to security concerns, said she felt she should be present for part of the meeting to vote on important matters, such as the selection of a new interim county administrator. With Strebs voting in favor, the council selected health worker Jim Rutherford to take over as acting county administrator.
“I’m immunocompromised and I’ve started to understand what it’s like to be a disabled person in the community more clearly than I’ve ever understood before,” Strebs said at the meeting.
She said she felt the behavior of others posed a risk to the health of community members and to her health.
“I am so pleased that Senator McCann is taking action on this important issue,” Strebs said in the press release. “As we move forward in the fight against COVID-19, it is essential that people have the tools they need to protect themselves and their communities.
“This legislation aligns the Open Meetings Act with the spirit and intent of the Americans with Disabilities Act. People with medical conditions will not have to risk their lives to serve their communities and this is a sensible step to take to make public service accessible.
Similar legislative proposals have been introduced by other lawmakers across the state.
Related: Democrats push to allow local councils to meet virtually again as COVID surges in Michigan
State Sen. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor and State Rep. Brenda Carter, D-Pontiac, introduced legislation in December to temporarily expand remote meeting permission for all local governments, including volunteer councils and elected councils. Senate Bill 705 would allow entire public bodies to meet remotely again under certain circumstances until March 31, 2022.
State Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, also introduced Senate Bill 792 which would do the same until Dec. 31, 2022.
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