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  • Writer's pictureDeborah Guthrie

Open Meetings During the Coronavirus Pandemic

Top 7 Things to Think About Before Doing Electronic Meetings


How long will meetings be postponed and when will we go back to the way things were before like in this picture of a 2017 Meridian Township Board Meeting? Some say months, some say weeks.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed an Executive Order to temporarily change the Open Meetings Act to allow public bodies to conduct their meetings electronically. The executive order also allows public participation. The order is in effect until April 15, 2020 at 11:59PM.

As a Communications Commissioner for Meridian Township/HOMTV and resident, I applaud this order.

I also applaud the order as a digital communicator who played a role in launching HOMTV live meeting streaming in 2007 to which HOMTV continues to stream meetings to this day and as a current social media marketer for companies having to change how they do meetings today due to the coronavirus.

As the former Executive Producer for HOMTV Election Coverage who led the way to provide Haslett, Okemos and Meridian Township Voters the ability to ask questions of candidates running for office via facebook and twitter in a live format, I applaud these efforts. This capability became an additional option for asking questions as phoning from home was put into place way before I ever came to HOMTV.

One of the reasons we launched HOMTV online in 2007, was the continued attempts at national and state levels to remove PEG channels from the cable line up. In 2010, we stopped PEG channels from being taken off the cable system across the country in Federal District Court. If we hadn't, this would have disenfranchised people at home who did not have the capability of going to the meeting or subscribing to the internet.

With rising cable prices and the increased need for internet access, government meetings being streamed live online has proven to be effective. For HOMTV, it also provided much needed cloud storage of all streamed meetings from 2007 to present. It is a great asset and resource for journalists and people looking to see actions of past boards and commissions and keeps a historical record of the township.

While Executive Producer of HOMTV Election Coverage, we also expanded ways in which people could participate in the democratic process by being able to ask questions of candidates via twitter and facebook. In 2017 we added closed captioning to election interviews, debate replays, meeting replays and live election night coverage replays.

I hope that is something HOMTV continues to do and I would be a strong advocate for.

With Governor Whitmer's Public Meeting Order, according to WLNS, "The order also temporarily authorizes public bodies, departments, and agencies to use technology to enable remote participation in public comment..."

Meridian Township is in a great position to conduct virtual or electronic meetings under this executive order utilizing the technology of HOMTV. Other municipalities are in a similar situation as well. Municipalities who have a long and successful history of streaming meetings already understand the many technological hurdles that can come along with multiple people needing to be heard, video being streamed through the many different formats available and be able to tackle those before launching a virtual meeting venture.

Going one step further for most Government Access channels like HOMTV would be able to have meetings set up with a two-way communication system for public comment and presentations. While nothing can replace the in-person experience, times like these call for different measures; mostly virtual ones given the social distancing guidelines.

But in-person meetings and broadcasting of those requires staff and board meetings in spaces social distancing would need to be observed, something we didn't have to think about in the past like this 2017 control room photo shows.

With citizens being homebound and more and more people telecommuting, looking for new ways to continue conducting meetings during this time while staying safe at home during the coronavirus pandemic is paramount if necessary.

I was recently on an electronic meeting and there were all kinds of problems and issues that beg to be considered and solved before conducting one or your own.

  1. People did not know who was at the meeting. After the initial introduction, if you were not taking notes of who was in attendance, you lost track of who was on the call.

  2. Without video, there was no verification that the person was really who they said they were. For public record, I think that would be important. Often times when we took live phone calls at HOMTV, we could tell by the voice who the person was on the phone but since they did not want to be recognized, they gave a fictitious name. That could be an issue with keeping official meeting minutes.

  3. People called-in at different times throughout the meeting so the voice prompt kept interrupting the meeting letting everyone know who was joining. This was disruptive to the flow of the meeting and kept distracting the attendees.

  4. It was hard to hear. If there is a firewall, if you are using your cellphone or blue tooth or the meeting is using a cell phone and not professional conferencing equipment it will be hard to hear. When you do electronic meetings, microphones and good, quality audio is paramount.

  5. Location, location, location. In real estate they talk about how important location is. That is no different for electronic meetings. I've been on meetings where people are driving in their car, at home with their dog or kids. Where people are calling in from can be a huge distraction if not thought about beforehand.

  6. Being inclusive. I'm all for having electronic meetings but not at the expense of giving up other ways to communicate. As we find new methods, we add to the old because not everyone has the means or the know-how to do only electronically. This must be kept in mind.

  7. Organization. Whoever leads the meetings needs to keep the meeting on track, on task, and moving forward. It's not a time for chit chatter and catching up like we are used to through apps and our phones, it is a time for conducting business.

As long as technical issues, testing, and problem solving is done before-hand; I believe electronic meetings, video conferencing and the many other tools that exist for remote meetings is a good idea. Sometimes through adversity we find ways to expand our way of thinking and find other ways of doing things, new methods and solutions.

I'd love to hear solutions your organization has developed.

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