AG Nessel promotes meeting transparency

AG Nessel promotes meeting transparency

Transparency finds bi-partisan support in Michigan.

On January 14th Sen. Jeff Irwin, D – Ann Arbor, and Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R – Traverse City, requested a legal opinion from Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel on how Michigan’s Open Meetings Act intersects with federal disability law.

The OMA describes itself as variation of the Freedom of Information Act in that its main intent is transparency. It also seeks to accommodate and encourage every citizen of Michigan actively to participate in civil discourse through the attendance of or participation in public meetings. They do this through methods such as requiring that details of all public meetings be posted in areas accessible to the public, meetings be open to the public and ensuring that there are opportunities for public comment.

In their request for a legal opinion, the two senators highlighted the fact that, when a person has a disability or is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, they are unable to attend in-person public meetings. This is of particular concern given that as of Jan. 1st, 2022, the state stopped allowing local governments – as well as their boards and commissions – to meet virtually.

“Michiganians with disabilities and specific health conditions shouldn’t have to risk their wellbeing to contribute to civic life in their communities,” the senators said.

The request for a legal opinion asked Michigan’s attorney general Dana Nessel to give an opinion on if the unavailability of a virtual option for public meetings renders the conditions of the Americans with Disabilities Act unmet as those with a protected disability or vulnerability protection are unable to attend.

Nessel believes so. In her legal opinion, she pointed to the ADA’s requirement that “no qualified individual with a disability shall, by reason of such disability, be excluded from participation in or be denied the benefits of the services, programs, or activities of a public entity, or be subjected to discrimination by any such entity.” She concluded that “the Americans with Disabilities Act and Rehabilitation Act require state and local boards and commissions to provide reasonable accommodations, which could include an option to participate virtually, to qualified individuals with a disability.”

In her opinion, Nessel reminded the legislature that they have the power to amend the OMA to include a virtual option. She encouraged the move, pointing to the “many potential benefits” including “greater transparency, increased public involvement and participation, and the avoidance of singling out disabled board members who are participating remotely.”

Most notably, Nessel urged state and local commissions to offer virtual options proactively “to allow this new area of technology to truly promote a new era of governmental accountability, transparency, inclusivity, and participation.”

With Nessel’s legal opinion, Michigan’s public boards should make this important move towards transparency and inclusion.

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