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Since January, Detroit City Council has been conducting its public meetings in the Committee of the Whole Room — located in the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center — and has yet to move back into the much larger Erma L. Henderson Auditorium.
Last week, councilmembers discussed and then postponed the vote on the proposed expansion of the city’s controversial ShotSpotter surveillance system, which police use to pinpoint locations of gunshot activity. More than 40 people attended the meeting in person to observe and make public comments on ShotSpotter. Many attendees had to stand in the hallway during the three-hour meeting due to the room’s limited capacity.
Inside, about 15 seats were designated for the public. Kayla Rice, spokesperson for Council President Mary Sheffield’s office, said prior to the pandemic there were 30 seats available for the public, but COVID-19 safety measures are still in place in the Committee of the Whole Room.
She said they are hoping to have the room back in full capacity for Tuesday’s council meeting, and are working with the building staff to bring back the rest of the chairs.
This was not the first time that there wasn’t enough room for those who showed up in person to the Committee of the Whole Room — and attendees who had to watch from TV monitors — without sound — outside the room complained about it. The state’s Open Meetings Act says all public meetings “must be held in a place available to the general public” and includes the right to record or broadcast the meeting.
Rai Lanier, executive director of Michigan Liberation, said she took off work to share her thoughts against expanding ShotSpotter, but she was not allowed inside the City Council meeting.
“This was a highly contentious topic,” Lanier said. “Why would they schedule it on a day and a space where they knew everyone wouldn’t be able to participate? Was this done on purpose?”
Michigan Liberation was one of seven organizations urging people to “pack the council” in opposition to ShotSpotter. Lanier said everyone has the right to participate in civic government and that it should be easily accessible.
“I see it as a blatant attack on grassroots organizing and community building,” she said.
City Council addressed the accessibility issue about 11 minutes into the public comment portion of the meeting, after a commenter said there were elderly people in the hallway who needed to be seated. That’s when Sheffield asked those who have physical disabilities or are in a wheelchair to raise their hand so that a member of her team could accommodate them with seating.
But those in the hallway could not hear this announcement because the TV monitors broadcasting the meeting did not play sound.
“It was just an unfortunate situation,” Sheffield told Outlier Media. “I do believe that when residents come down, they should be able to sit and to be able to hear the council proceedings.”
The City Council says it has been unable to conduct official meetings in the auditorium because of video equipment delays due to a nationwide chip shortage. This delay is stopping them from being able to fully broadcast their meeting from the room, and a temporary solution has not yet been found. But the Board of Zoning Appeals held a hearing in the auditorium during the council meeting and has been broadcasting their meetings on Zoom since May.
“The difference is that they don’t have to stream to Channel 10,” Sheffield said. “We have a mandatory requirement that all of our meetings have to be broadcast on Channel 10.”
Sheffield said they’re hoping to move their weekly meeting to the Henderson Auditorium this month.
Yvonne Navarrete, policy director for We the People Michigan, spoke out of turn during the meeting to alert Sheffield that those outside could not hear her.
“I felt extremely frustrated because our City Council members are there to serve us, and the point of a City Council meeting and public comment is to hear from the public,” she said. “And for them to make it that difficult to follow along is just not right.”
Kristin Dayag, chief of staff to Councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero’s chief of staff, said she and a member from Sheffield’s office brought speakers from the Media Services Room into the hallway to broadcast sound from the meeting.
“Usually the hallway isn’t set up for overflow,” Dayag said. “Typically, the (crowd) goes into the auditorium to hear the meeting, but there was a meeting going on there at the same time.”
City Council will be meeting in the same room on Tuesday. Sheffield told Outlier that her office is making sure no other department is using Henderson Auditorium, in order to use it for additional seating and a livestream of the meeting.
Reach MALAK SILMI, the Report for America Corps Member for Outlier Media, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-985-0377.