West Bloomfield board returns to in-person meetings

By: Mark Vest | West Bloomfield Beacon | Published July 1, 2021

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WEST BLOOMFIELD — After more than a year of being virtual, the West Bloomfield Township Board of Trustees recently voted to return to in-person meetings, effective Sept. 13.

The vote took place via a virtual board meeting June 21, with the decision being unanimously approved.

In March 2020, the board meetings began to go virtual following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Fact is, (the) pandemic is under control, and we are confident that there are no safety or health hazards associated with returning to live meetings,” Township Supervisor Steven Kaplan said prior to the vote.

Based on the topic having been previously addressed, Kaplan was confident about where the board stood.

“We discussed the issue on June 7, and the board essentially unanimously agreed that we should return to live meetings,” Kaplan said. “We didn’t take a vote on June 7 because it wasn’t on the agenda.”

It isn’t just the Board of Trustees that is set to return to in-person meetings.

“The boards that are going back face-to-face are the Planning Commission, the Zoning Board of Appeals, the Environmental Commission, as well as the Pension Board,” said Township Clerk Debbie Binder. “So, the township board and those four are going back to face-to-face meetings on Sept. 13, unless there’s a change.”

Kaplan made clear via an email that, “Our motion, of course, does not include the Library Board, Parks Commission, and Cable Advisory Board, since they have separate forms of government.”

According to Kaplan, the township is maintaining an “emergency status” through Dec. 31 of this year, which allows for the possibility to return to virtual meetings in case there is a “pandemic resurgence.”

Binder offered a further explanation.

“The state, they allow you until Dec. 31 to meet remotely if your municipality is in a state of emergency,” she said. “So, in other words, if you weren’t in a state of emergency, you wouldn’t be able to meet (remotely) at all. But by being in a state of emergency, you have the ability by law to meet remotely through Dec. 31.”

Despite Zoom meetings being “more convenient,” there are certain aspects to meeting in person that can’t be replicated.

“I think the board members miss the interaction with one another at board meetings, and also, something is lost in the translation when it’s a Zoom meeting versus a live meeting, somewhat like watching a football game on television versus listening to the game on the radio,” Kaplan said.

Aside from better interaction among board members, and between board members and the public, Kaplan shared his perspective of another advantage of in-person meetings over virtual.

“You can pick up when somebody’s uncomfortable or maybe somebody’s being insincere,” he said. “Your opportunities to address that are less when it’s a virtual meeting.”

Binder shared her thoughts about the advantages of meeting in person.

“Things seem to run smoother in a face-to-face meeting,” she said. “I think it’s easier to communicate face-to-face, and it’s easier for the public to feel like they’re interacting with us face-to-face. So, I think there’s a relationship that’s enhanced by being back in person and having the public able to come to Town Hall.”

On the flip side, virtual meetings have allowed for unprecedented opportunities.

“I think the public appreciates being able to participate in a meeting (from) home or office, especially when that homeowner or resident is away from West Bloomfield,” Kaplan said. “Those people can participate as though they were here. And elected board members, they are able to participate, and they have been able to participate, even if they’re not in West Bloomfield.”

The ability of governing agencies to adapt during a pandemic could potentially be used as a model going forward.

“I think it was a learning curve, and I think that we were in line with every municipality that had to learn to find a way to be accessible and available to the public, and do so quickly, because there is an expectation of accessibility to the public,” Binder said. “I think that we did a good job, guided by our IT department and by the board’s request to make sure that we came up with a solution quickly and comprehensively, that still respected the goal of an open meeting and the interaction with the public.”

Kaplan does not anticipate that in-person meetings will also be offered virtually.

“Most of the municipalities that are returning to live meetings are not conducting what’s called a hybrid,” he said. “(A) hybrid meeting would be where members of the public participate virtually. It’s very cumbersome to do that. It would mean that each board member would have to have a laptop computer and then would have to switch on and off when somebody is trying to address the board from elsewhere.”

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