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As commissioners say they’re committing to hybrid meetings, it’s time to give us high-speed broadband


I did the math, and as the Livingston County Board of Commissioners last night reversed the decision it made the week before to continue Zoom meetings for two months, nearly a third of the beds at St. Joseph Mercy Livingston Hospital in Howell are filled with COVID patients.

For the math folks, that’s 13 beds out of the 43 at the facility. And that’s not taking into account Livingston County patients who may be hospitalized in other facilities.

Here is the first paragraph of the Livingston County Health Department’s COVID report of March 26, 2021:

COVID-19 cases reported in Livingston County, Michigan have again begun to rise at an alarming rate. This surge in cases is further confirmed by a test positivity rate that has almost doubled over the past month.

With this surge in cases, COVID-19-related hospitalizations have once again increased.

The Livingston County Health Department (LCHD) has additionally seen a recent rise in cases among school-aged children, as well as both club and school sports-related outbreaks. There is great concern about seeing a dramatic rise in cases after the Spring Break holiday given increased travel and gatherings, with the potential to place in-person schooling at risk.

The entire Health Department report is available at the end of this post.

And you can see the upward trend in COVID cases in the community below:

SOURCE: Livingston County Health Department

It is in the midst of a Livingston County COVID surge that the Livingston County Board of Commissioners flip-flopped on whether or not to continue meeting via Zoom.

They wouldn’t even consider Commissioner Kate Lawrence’s reasonable compromise of an extension of Zoom meetings for two weeks — until April 16 — to allow local units of government the chance to change gears.

There was a rush on to start meeting again in person as soon as possible — a move that appeared to be spearheaded by Chairperson Wes Nakagiri and Commissioner Mitch Zajac — a rush so mad that a special meeting on March 29, which ran nearly three hours, was scheduled to reverse the board’s initial decision to continue Zooming for 60 days in an epic four-and-a-half-hour meeting on March 22.

The board’s flip-flopping did more than just put an end to Zoom meetings:

1. It set a bad precedent.

If our county board can spend nearly eight hours and two meetings — one regular, one special — to flip flop on a 60-day thing, how will it make decisions of a more permanent basis?

2. The board isn’t providing leadership to the 20 other units of government in Livingston County.

Like one local official told me, no one is looking to the county board for any kind of direction on anything.

And so it is that while some local units — like Hartland Township — have resumed in-person meetings, others — like the City of Howell and the Village of Pinckney — adopted their own Emergency Resolutions this week so they could continue to meet remotely.

Commissioner Jay Gross said the flip-flopping was putting a “tremendous burden on locals.”

It was also surprising to hear, too, that the board was set to make this decision without consulting its various departments. Drain Commissioner Brian Jonckheere, who regularly holds public meetings on projects, seemed displeased not to have been consulted, and he told the commissioners that their flip-flopping was “creating chaos and conflict.”

3. Political gamesmanship trumps public service.

I suspect the flip-flop had one true purpose: send a message to Democrat Gov. Gretchen Whitmer that she can’t boss Republican Livingston County around. While the Emergency Resolution covers only how local units of government can meet to satisfy the requirements of the Open Meetings Act — a fact lost on many who spoke at both meetings — Chairperson Nakagiri threw in nursing home deaths, his pique over the state’s use of the Social Vulnerability Index to distribute vaccines, and the crisis at the southern border of the U.S. to justify the board’s flippity flop.

While Nakagiri has points on each of those issues, they have nothing to do with how the commissioners meet. The only thing that should have mattered in making the decision is the health and safety of Livingston County’s employees and residents. With COVID numbers skyrocketing in Livingston County and across the state, it’s hard to see why it would be a bad thing to continue meeting via Zoom for 60 MORE DAYS to give the surge in vaccinations the chance to take hold.

All that said, there could be a really, really good thing to come out of all this.

• The commissioners seem committed to establishing a hybrid approach to its meetings, with both in-person and Zoom available. The board said it will take up a resolution for hybrid meetings at its April 5 meeting.

Putting hybrid meetings into play, and making them permanent, goes a long, long way to guarantee equitable, safe and convenient access across Livingston County, which, in turn, should increase public participation. That’s a very, very good thing.

• Chairperson Nakagiri used the word “broadband.”

One thing we’ve all learned during the pandemic is that the internet is not a luxury. High-speed fiber-optic broadband should be treated like a utility, like electricity.

With Livingston County getting ready to rake in $37 million in federal stimulus dough under the American Relief Plan, it should use the money to help fund a high-speed fiber-optic broadband. It’s hard to think of a single thing that would benefit the entire community more. I wrote about that last week; you can click here to read that piece.

Hybrid meetings are a good compromise, I guess, for those unwilling to wait 60 DAYS to see where we stand COVID-wise. It’s a decision that satisfies the commissioners’ mad rush for in-person meetings while providing an avenue for folks who wish to remain safe until Livingston County’s numbers improve.

And once everyone in Livingston County has access to broadband, permanent hybrid meetings will ensure that every person in Livingston County has access. I will be the first to tip my hat to the board when it officially decides to get county-wide high-speed broadband up and running.

But after last night’s meeting, I am not going to hold my breath because, well, who knows if the board will change its mind about that, too.

You can read WHMI’s coverage of the meeting by clicking here.

You can follow Livingston County’s COVID numbers by clicking here.

You can read the March 27, 2021, report of the Livingston County Health Department here:

LCHD COVID19 Report 26mar21

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