Opinion: With change to Open Meetings Act, sunshine is even more important
“Sunshine is the best disinfectant,” so stated Justice Louis Brandeis. The Michigan Press Association feels strongly that transparency in government is crucial to democracy. Especially in times of crisis like the one we are currently facing.
We understand that at all levels of government public servants are scrambling to do what is best and right for the safety of Michigan citizens and we are working with groups like the Michigan Municipal league to sail these uncharted waters while still preserving the public’s right to know.
Monday, March 16, evening Michigan Municipal League Executive Director Dan Gilmartin issued the following statement: “the current restrictions of Michigan’s Open Meeting Act are hampering the ability of local governments to meet the needs of first responders, health care workers, businesses and constituents in responding to the coronavirus pandemic. We call on state officials to move quickly to allow city and village councils and other local governments to hold meetings via virtual modes of communications, such as teleconferences and Skype, when possible during this critical period. The Michigan Municipal League is strongly supportive of a fully transparent government—but also of one capable of doing its job of protecting the health, safety and welfare of people. Quick, decisive action is needed now, by our state leaders and our local leaders.”
It is the position of the Michigan Press Association that quick, decisive action is achievable while still maintaining the important tenants of the Open Meetings Act:
* deferring what can be deferred and addressing only those items that are absolutely necessary;
* ensuring that the public has ability to hear all participants and participate themselves; and
* proper notice
Because local public bodies should be addressing only those items that are absolutely necessary, we think it is also critical to:
1. Make agendas and meeting packets available online in advance of the meeting.
2. If the local public body does not have an online presence, notices of the meeting and information on how people can participate should be run in local newspapers along with a meeting agenda.
Meeting packets, agendas, and minutes should be made available online either through a local newspaper or the MPA’s offered internet site. MPA has also made it clear that it will work with its members to make such notices available quickly and inform the public where it can find the information.
We also feel that violations should be challengeable up to 90 days after the emergency is declared over to allow for proper review of any questionable scenarios.
This is a difficult time in our state, and citizens are looking to their government officials to lead while still providing access to information and government action.
James Tarrant is the executive director of the Michigan Press Association. He has been the executive director of the Chicago Medical Society, the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine and the American Association of Dental Boards.