In-person comment is out, for now: local governments adapt to life under COVID

Like similar rooms across the state, the Bellingham City Council chamber sits empty during the statewide Stay Home, Stay Healthy rule, as local governments have moved meetings online. (Photo courtesy City of Bellingham)

By Stella Harvey

— City and county councils and commissions across Washington state are finding new ways to conduct their public meetings since Gov. Jay Inslee issued the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order March 23, requiring local governing bodies to temporarily halt their in-person meetings. 

In Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties, meetings have moved online, their agendas stripped down to the most pressing business — including addressing the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has put public comment periods in flux as officials struggle to find the best way to hear from their constituents.

In the long term, some anticipate that the new approaches surfacing during the pandemic could become integrated into future meetings. 

Who’s being heard?

For the Bellingham City Council, the usual 15 minutes allowed each meeting for oral comments from the public has been eliminated, according to the most recent agenda. The council accepts comments only by phone or email, and they are read aloud during its weekly remote meetings.

Michael Lilliquist, who represents the 6th Ward, said that without oral comments, it will be difficult to know who council members are not hearing from.

“There is a minority of people who are active and involved, and their voices will get through anyway; but there’s probably a greater number of people who are only intermittently involved and they have barriers,” Lilliquist said. “I don’t know what we’re going to miss. I don’t know which voices we’re not going to hear.”

Dana Brown-Davis, clerk of the Whatcom County Council, said in an email that while the council has also temporarily suspended its oral public comment period, people can submit their comments ahead of time. An announcement in each council meeting agenda sets out the procedure.

Laura Gelwicks, communications coordinator for the Skagit County Board of Commissioners’ Office, said in an email that because the Skagit County Commission’s meetings have moved online, those who would like to make a comment must contact the commissioners’ office and be patched into the meeting, or email in advance. These guidelines are outlined on the commission’s website.

In Mount Vernon, the city council is accepting written public comments only via email. These are then read aloud in the reports section of the meeting, according to the most recent agenda. The public can virtually attend meetings by calling into a conference line, watching a live broadcast on TV10 or going online via a link in the agenda.

According to San Juan County Council member Rick Hughes, while the council has tried to hold a verbal public comment period through an online portal during its first few remote meetings, most of the issues that prompt public comments have been temporarily removed from the agenda.

“At this point in time, the governor has basically stated that we need to talk about routine business and stuff that keeps the county running,” Hughes said. “If we’re talking about marijuana, vacation rentals, land use or environmental issues, I would like — and I think our council and staff would like — people to have the opportunity to be there in person, so we’ve taken most of that stuff off the agenda.”

Michael Shepard, president of the Port of Bellingham Board of Commissioners, said the port has integrated verbal public comment into its meetings by allowing people to join a Zoom or conference call, where they may give their comments live. People can also provide comments about the port’s agenda and issues via email.

Open meetings, social justice

Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government (WCOG), said the Open Public Meetings Act, which requires all governing bodies to make their meetings publicly available, still fully applies to all remotely held public meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Nixon said at a minimum, all council meetings must be made available over the phone so people can call in and listen to their local governments’ deliberations. 

Most counties in Washington, including Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit, already video record or livestream their meetings, which are available on their respective websites. If people do not have access to a computer or television, they can contact their local government to request a number to call to listen to public meetings. City and county councils also must continue to give the public notice before conducting a virtual meeting. 

Nixon said that any time a discussion of public business takes place, regardless of whether a final decision is made, “it needs to be done in a place where the public can observe it, but not necessarily participate directly.” 

A comment period for public participation in city or county council meetings is not required in the Open Public Meetings Act, and there is nothing stipulating that the public must participate in their government’s proceedings. However, local governing bodies across Washington continue to explore options to receive the public’s perspective on the issues they care about. Nixon said some counties in Washington are allowing people to send in pre-recorded video or audio statements to be played at meetings.

“We have to think about the social justice issues of these things. Not everybody has access to the internet. Not everybody has an email account, so how can they provide comment?” Nixon said.

More access, better communication

Hughes, who represents District 2 of San Juan County, said that technology issues have forced the council to accept written public comments only through email. While the council members continue to search for a better solution, Hughes said frequent press releases get information out to their community. Also, he said council members are trying to use Facebook and other social media platforms to engage with their constituents.

“I mean, that’s the craziest thing about all of this. It’s so hard to figure out how to best communicate,” Hughes said.“I think that if anything, throughout this crisis, we’ll have an opportunity to figure out the best way to communicate with folks.”

Lisa Anderson, a member of the Bellingham City Council and the League of Woman Voters of Bellingham/Whatcom County, said local groups are also working to make their meetings and work more accessible. She said more widespread use of software like Zoom for meetings might make enable more public engagement.

“Sometimes a crisis like this has a way of taking us out of our comfort zone and having us completely re-examine how we deliver to our community,” Anderson said.

Nixon said there have always been some people who lacked access to local government meetings because of issues such as transportation or scheduling conflicts. While written public comments have always been accepted, these sometimes lack the impact of in-person comments, he said. 

“Nothing prohibits these new methods of public comment from continuing to be available after the current emergency is past, and agencies may very well want to continue them in support of social justice and equity,” Nixon said in an email. 

He added that while the internet allows public meetings to be viewed anywhere, WCOG will continue to be vigilant about how local governments are reacting to circumstances brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“There’s a real temptation, once you get into this pattern of having virtual meetings, to use it for inappropriate purposes, [for example] not providing public notice in some circumstances,” Nixon said.

According to Nixon, WCOG is not aware of any violations of the Open Public Meetings Act since meetings have moved online. If any council were to violate the act by not giving proper notice of an open meeting, a court could fine each member $500 for the first violation and $1,000 for each subsequent violation, and require payment of attorney and court costs of the person who sued the agency, according to Nixon. Violating the Open Public Meetings Act willfully would also violate an elected representative’s oath of office, and could be grounds for a recall petition.

City and county council and commissioner meetings in Whatcom, San Juan and Skagit counties will continue despite the COVID-19 pandemic. But only time will tell how long local governments can operate with limited agendas and remote input from their constituents. 

“If this goes on long, I think there’ll be a problem. But if it’s only a couple of months, I think we could probably get through it pretty well,” Lilliquist said.

As councils and commissions continue to meet, a few items of note in upcoming agendas are:

  • Bellingham City Council, May 4, 7 p.m.: Public hearing on an emergency moratorium on permits for single-family detached development in multi-family zones (22599). The city council enacted an emergency moratorium on March 9; state law requires a public hearing within 60 days of adoption of an emergency ordinance.
  • Whatcom County Council: May 5, 1 p.m.: Vote on ordinance supporting a thoughtful approach to  doing business in Whatcom County during the COVID-19 pandemic (AB2020-188). The ordinance, proposed by Ben Elenbaas, supports businesses such as big box stores or any construction projects including residential construction of any kind that practices actions to mitigate the spread of the virus. (Whatcom County)
  • Port of Bellingham Board of Commissioners, May 5, 4 p.m.: Vote on approval to accept $5 million from the CARES Act. The commission will convene in open session to approve a consent agenda and address other business following an executive session at 3 p.m. (Port of Bellingham)

Stella Harvey is a senior at Western Washington University, graduating with a degree in journalism and women, gender and sexuality studies. She grew up in Seattle, and aspires to be a local government reporter and investigative journalist.