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Meeting the times

Local municipal boards using technology to conduct business

Members of the Marquette Township Board and other participants are shown during a virtual meeting on Tuesday. Many municipalities are turning to electronic meetings of government bodies. (Journal photo by Lisa Bowers)

MARQUETTE — Business as usual? Marquette County municipal leaders are saying yes, wherever possible. State social distancing guidelines have made holding public meetings different and difficult, but not impossible, many local leaders say.

Government meetings are required to be accessible to the public, according to the Open Meetings Act, so how do you do that if getting together poses a public health risk?

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order temporarily allowing boards to teleconference using a variety of different methods, “so long as they follow certain procedures to ensure meaningful access and participation by members of the public body and the general public,” a press release from Whitmer’s office states.

Under the order, which is in effect until April 15 and could be extended, members of the public body and the general public must be able to participate in two-way communication. As such, the public body must allow public participation in which the general public can hear the public body and the public body can also hear the general public.

So what does that look like? We asked local leaders in Marquette Township, Negaunee Township, Chocolay Township and the cities of Ishpeming and Negaunee what they might do in order to conduct business that can only occur by law in a public meeting.

Most indicated they plan to conduct only essential business during the virtual meetings, using platforms like Zoom, Gotomeeting, Freeconferencecall.com and Uberconference, all of which should allow participation via telephone for those who do not have internet capability. Negaunee Township and Marquette Township have both recently conducted meetings via electronic media platforms, one as recently as Tuesday, conducting essential business only.

– Marquette Township

Regularly scheduled meetings of the Marquette Township Board will occur as scheduled on the first and third Tuesday of each month. The April 7 meeting will be held on Zoom in order to maintain social distancing, Marquette Township Manager Randy Girard said.

Complete meeting packets are available on the township website at www.marquettetownship.org on the Thursday prior to the meeting.

The public can participate in the meeting either by emailing questions or public comment to Marquette Township Clerk Randy Ritari at rritari@marquettetownship.org 15 minutes prior to the meeting. Residents can also call or log into the meeting at https://.us04web.zoom.us/j/898587479 using the meeting ID: 898 587 479; or calling 1-646-558-8656 and enter the meeting ID followed by the pound (#) sign.

– Negaunee Township

Negaunee Township Manager Nick Leach said he expects the Negaunee Township Board to meet after April 16. The Negaunee Township Planning Commission meeting on Tuesday has been canceled, in part, because some members do not have the technical capabilities to conduct business.

“It’s been deemed not essential,” Leach said. “We have had our attorney weigh in — in normal times that you can have members chime in electronically, but they have to be physically visible when they are making decisions.”

He said the board will likely use the Uberconference.com platform and have some board members at the township hall at the time of the meeting, while still maintaining social distancing guidelines. The meeting date and time will be posted at the township website at www.negauneetownship.org.

Negaunee City Manager Nate Heffron said the city council will meet to discuss “essential items” like bills and claims.

“I would not say it’s been hard to find alternative measures to hold meetings, but the very nature of having (a) meeting where people are not in a room together is a very foreign concept to our form of government,” Heffron said. “Luckily, we live in a technological age where we can continue to provide some access to our meetings. Although this is not ideal, it is what we are stuck with at this present time. We will follow closely the orders provided by the governor and pursuant to the Open Meetings Act.”

But relying on technology in areas that may not have the connectivity that is taken for granted in more populated areas may not be as easy for some.

Participants by phone can call 1-312-626-6799 at 7 p.m. Thursday and use meeting ID: 935 608 7193. Those with accessibility requirements can dial Michigan Relay Service at 7-1-1. Web access to the meeting is provided at https://zoom.us/j/9356087193, participants should use the meeting ID referenced above.

– City of Ishpeming

The city of Ishpeming has canceled its April meetings altogether.

The Ishpeming City Council meeting scheduled for Wednesday has been canceled, City Manager Craig Cugini said in a phone interview. The council will likely meet on May 6 via the freeconferencecall.com platform, he said, if Gov. Whitmer’s stay at home order is still in place.

“I’ve got some council members that want to do Zoom meetings, and then looking at that, I am not sure that the city of Ishpeming is really technologically proficient enough to do that yet,” Cugini said. “So we are looking at doing something … where we would establish a phone number that people could dial into. Before the meeting would start, we would announce how we are going to handle the operation of the meeting, and then we would ask them to say their name so we can record everyone who is present. It does chime when a person dials in so we would have to stop the meeting and request who dialed in.”

In the meantime, Cugini said he has been keeping the council apprised of weekly operations.

“We have no decisions that have to be made at this time that would require bringing them together for a meeting,” Cugini said.

– Chocolay Township

Chocolay Township plans to hold two meetings this month, manager Bill Degroot said, one on April 13 along with a special meeting to award a construction contract.

“We have contracted with Zoom to host live sign-in meetings,” Degroot said in an email. “This will be posted on our website and (the) public will be able to call in or watch live with the ability to chat during public comment periods. …We are still testing the capabilities but it will be functional before (April) 13,” Degroot said. “This is a new day for our township and we do not fully know what to expect based on the limited access that some (of) our residents have to the internet, much less ability to stream, but with Zoom there is a call-in feature that allows anyone to dial in to listen to the meeting. We are trying our best to have a fully open and compliant meeting for those wishing to attend.”

Most of the leaders interviewed said although future agendas may be longer than normal to make up for paring municipal business down to a minimum now, the public will not be impacted.

“I think everybody is facing the same things. Right now it’s easy to put off a meeting. We are going to continue to do normal business later,” Cugini said. “I think we may see some delays in business operations. If it is a critical function we will do what we can, but things like zoning variances and other requests might have to wait a little longer.”

For more information on how to access meeting information, residents should visit their municipality’s website or call the office.

The Ishpeming City Hall can be reached at 906-485-1091; the Negaunee Township Hall can be reached at 906 475-7869; the Marquette Township Hall can be reached at 906-228-6220; the Chocolay Township Hall can be reached at 906-249-1448; and Negaunee City Hall can be reached at 906-475-7700.

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