State of emergency extended in Madison Heights

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published April 3, 2021

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MADISON HEIGHTS — With three vaccines beginning to roll out, officials hope to see society return to normal sooner rather than later. But with most people not yet vaccinated, and variants of the coronavirus beginning to appear, the city of Madison Heights is extending its emergency order.

The new order began April 1 and is effective through the end of June. The order affects how the city conducts its business with the general public.

“This may be rescinded, but for now it means that council meetings will continue to be remote, and our boards and commissions may also continue to hold their meetings remotely,” Madison Heights Mayor Roslyn Grafstein explained in an email. “I am hopeful that as the availability of the vaccine grows, more people will be vaccinated and we can resume our in-person meetings.”

The city’s original state of emergency started more than a year ago, in March 2020, with all public meetings shifting to a virtual format, often conducted over the free video conferencing app Zoom.   

The new state of emergency complies with the state’s own emergency order, issued March 2 by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. The move limits in-person gatherings and requires safety protocols such as social distancing and mask wearing.

Melissa Marsh, the city manager of Madison Heights, said the remote meetings have actually led to increased resident participation, since people are able to tune in from anywhere.  

“We think this (emergency) action not only protects our employees, elected officials, volunteers and residents, but offers more transparency,” Marsh said.

Grafstein expressed mixed feelings about the virtual format. She described incidents where council members lost their internet connections in the middle of a vote and had to be reconnected, with reports repeated and positions restated. There is also the occasional awkwardness of trying to parse through a sea of faces and sounds coming from a computer.  

“We have worked out most of the kinks with remote meetings, but there is no substitute for being in person,” Grafstein said. “When I chair the meeting, I find much of my time is spent trying to determine who has been asked to be recognized. In person, I know who sits to my left or right and can better guess the voice, but being online, all sounds come from the same place. It can also be distracting to have multiple people onscreen at the same time, and every drink of water or nose scratch is caught for all to see. We may have more people attending and speaking because they can do so from the comfort of their couch, but our meetings have always been available to watch live and recorded to watch later.”

She said she understands the necessity, however.

“Right now, it would be a logistical nightmare to go back to in-person meetings, with 10 people needing to be present but 6 feet from each other in masks,” Grafstein said.

Madison Heights City Councilman Mark Bliss said he’s eager to return to in-person meetings.

“The level of transparency and accountability increases with everyone being face to face, as does the accessibility for seniors who aren’t as familiar with platforms like Zoom,” Bliss said. “It has been nice to have some added schedule flexibility and increased engagement from virtual options, but it’s my hope that we will still be able to incorporate some of that into our meetings going forward, making an in-person return a win-win.

“That said, we need to make sure that the timing is right so that we don’t unnecessarily endanger our staff, boards and residents,” he said. “It’s a balancing act that many communities are facing right now, and like our neighbors, we are being cautious and giving ourselves some needed flexibility on this complex issue. If we can safely get back to in-person early, then we will, but we won’t rush it. It will be a well-thought-out and well-planned return that’s safe for all those involved.”

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