The tentative plan is to return to the board room.

That’s what the Tuscola County Board of Commissioners are slated to do once the present emergency declaration, brought on by the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) outbreak, expires on April 30. Unless that declaration is extended for longer – which other counties in Michigan already have done – the commissioners and all other government boards, councils and commissions in the county will have to start meeting in-person again.

The question the commissioners dealt with at their April 12 Committee of the Whole session (at such meetings the commissioners can discuss issues but take no action) was where those meetings would be.

Controller/administrator Clayette Zechmeister had researched some possible places where the commissioners could meet in-person. The Knights of Columbus Hall would be available at $200 for a half-day and would hold about 80 people socially distanced. The Polish American Hall would be available at about $300 per use and also would hold about 80 people, but it has limited wi-fi service. The Tuscola County Fairgrounds building, however, has been offered to the commissioners at no cost. It is not being used on Mondays, but there is a 1 p.m. meeting on Thursdays. 

The county, however, would have to spend around $3,000 for portable two-way communication equipment as well as the labor to regularly set that equipment up and tear it down for each meeting.

“It would be unwise, I think, to stop offering virtual (access),” District 2 Commissioner Thomas Bardwell said.

District 5 Commissioner Dan Grimshaw said the board could use the fairgrounds building as it is and let people watch online, but if they wanted to comment or participate, they’d have to come in-person. That would alleviate the need for chief information officer Eean Lee to purchase additional, portable equipment to allow two-way communication.

“That is not required under the Open Meetings Act,” Grimshaw said. “You don’t have to offer two-way communication if the building is big enough to accommodate anyone who wanted to participate.”
While he admitted Grimshaw is correct, Bardwell said having two-way communications with residents is a preference. He called it a “disservice” to the public to change that now.

“Now that we have started it, we should try to engage with the public,” he said, “and not require them to come in, especially with what is going on right now (the surge in COVID-19 cases locally).”

Lee said setting up for just a broadcast of meetings would be easy and he could monitor anyone from the outside seeking to ask a question or offer a comment. It would be more costly in equipment and time to make sure commissioners could have two-way communication with anyone participating from the outside.

“If we go to the building at the fairgrounds,” District 4 Commissioner Doug DuRussel said, “there is no reason to buy extra equipment that Eean said we are going to need if we start going outside of the Purdy building just to have the meeting online. You don’t need to broadcast it. It is not a law that says we do.”

“We don’t need to duplicate our county building right now out there or anywhere else, if it (the site) is big enough to accommodate all of the people who want to be there,” Grimshaw said. “That’s the key.”

DuRussel said the commissioners should offer a hybrid meeting out of the commissioners’ room at the H.H. Purdy building, with Zechmeister and clerk Jodi Fetting attending virtually. Social distancing, however, would limit that room to just nine people – five of whom would be the commissioners. They’d have to suspend any meeting that draws more than nine people.

“By offering the hybrid, we don’t really need to make sure we have the seating in the building, do we?” he said. “Because we aren’t telling people they can’t come. They can just go online or over the phone.”

“There’s the fly in the ointment,” Bardwell said. “We can’t exclude anyone if they want to come to the meeting.” 

If they do meet in person, Bardwell said, the commissioners and anyone else must wear a mask. “No exceptions,” he said, noting this came from the county’s lawyers.

“From a legal perspective we are setting the precedent of the county. We are supposed to be the example.”