Does the Open Meetings Act allow remote participation in public meetings?

What does Michigan’s Open Meetings Act say about remote participation in public meetings?

Sunshine Week was recognized across the county a couple of weeks ago. Sunshine Week is a national initiative organized by the American Society of News Editors to educate the public about open government and celebrate government transparency.

In Michigan there are two primary laws which protect transparency and open government. One of those is the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), which was the subject of a recent MSU Extension news article discussing deadlines for fulfilling FOIA request. That article can be found here.

The other primary protection of transparency comes from Michigan’s Open Meetings Act (OMA). The primary purpose of the Open Meetings Act is to ensure that the public’s business is done, quite literally, in public, where the public can witness deliberations and decisions their governing bodies make. There are many MSU Extension news articles which cover various pieces of the OMA, some of which you can find here.

Recently, I was asked whether the Open Meetings Act allowed for an elected official to participate in a public meeting remotely or if they had to be physically present at the meeting in order to participate. Unfortunately, the Act itself gives no direct guidance as to whether members of public bodies may participate electronically.

The best guidance comes from a 1987 court case, in which the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled that participation at a hearing was allowable as long as the public was able to hear comments by absent members using speaker phones.

The Attorney General’s OMA handbook assumes remote participation is allowed, recommending that if members are participating remotely, votes should be taken by roll call so that it is clear how all members voted.

Given the lack of explicit reference in the law, there are a few best practices that public bodies should keep in mind in regards to remote participation. First, it is recommended that at least a quorum of members be physically present at the meeting. It is also recommended that the rules governing the board establish rules for remote participation. Here is an example of such a rule, from the Allegan County Board of Commissioners’ Rules of Organization:

This article is one of many Michigan State University Extension articles and resources related to the Open Meetings Act. Others can be found on the MSU Extension website and Extension has training programs on complying with the Michigan OMA. This program is one of many MSU Extension offerings for local governments.

Those in Michigan State University Extension that focus on Government and Public Policy provide various training programs, which are available to be presented in your county.  Contact your local Government and Public Policy educator for more information.

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