Mountlake Terrace City Council reviews public comment, remote meeting attendance policies

The Mountlake Terrace City Council met via Zoom at its work/study session Thursday night.

The Mountlake Terrace City Council at its April 28 work/study session discussed making some updates to its public comment policy. It also reviewed an ordinance amendment regarding councilmembers’ remote attendance at meetings and a resolution to officially establish Juneteenth as a city holiday.

Current policy allows members of the public to speak for five minutes per person during public comments at regular business meetings and two minutes per person at work/study sessions. Although the total time allotted for public comments at the work/study sessions is officially capped at 16 minutes, the council can decide to allow for more time if it feels that is necessary.

Changes made to Washington state law this year recognized the value provided by offering the public opportunities to attend and comment at government meetings remotely. Therefore, city staff recommended amending the local policy that allows for the public to remotely participate in those affairs.

Doing so will require the city to make some minor policy updates regarding the process for signing up to comment at public meetings, the contact for submitting a request for records, and also remove current language about meeting materials being made available at the Mountlake Terrace Library – as only meeting agendas are now posted there and any other materials are made available in advance online.

In addition, the 16-minute limit for public comments at work/study sessions would be eliminated. The time limit has not typically been a factor during those sessions and the council already had the discretion to adjust the time allotted to speakers if needed.

Councilmember Erin Murray recommended that the language should be changed so that those providing public comment in the council chambers aren’t explicitly required to do so from the lectern. She pointed out that such a requirement could unintentionally exclude comments from people in wheelchairs or those who might not be able to physically access the public lectern itself.

The council was in agreement with the proposed language edit and also expressed its preference that the public comments portion of regular business meetings be moved up in the agenda to proceed the consent calendar. Doing so would then provide people the chance to provide feedback about those action items before the council votes on them.

Additionally, public comments during work/study sessions would be scheduled to take place before the council reviews its agenda items for the following regular business meeting. That way, the council would then have the opportunity, if it so wished, to further discuss during its own scheduled comments any items of concern moving forward.

City staff will take the feedback gathered Thursday night and incorporate it into a draft policy to be considered by the council at its May 12 work/study session.

In other business, the council also reviewed an ordinance amending the municipal code regarding remote city council attendance.

Since 2002, the code has allowed councilmembers to attend one meeting per calendar year by telephone and doing so required them to provide at least three working days’ advance notice due to the logistics involved. In addition, the code specified that the telephonic attendance of a councilmember does not constitute a quorum of the city council and doing so for the purposes of voting on a quasi-judicial matter at a council meeting is prohibited.

However, in 2020 as COVID-19 began to spread throughout Washington state, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a public health emergency that included placing restrictions on public gatherings to help limit the spread of the virus.

Inslee’s orders also prohibited in-person government meetings under the Open Public Meetings Act. Instead, such proceedings were required to be held remotely and government agencies had to provide, at minimum, both the public and government officials with an opportunity for attending, listening and commenting at meetings via telephonic access. The option(s) provided by local governments could also include other electronic, internet or means of remote access as long as those offered everyone attending the meeting the ability to hear each other at the same time.

Since then, the City of Mountlake Terrace has continued to hold its various public meetings remotely via the Zoom platform. Earlier this spring, the council discussed targeting a date in May for a return to holding its public meetings in person. Councilmembers agreed they were looking forward to having in-person public meetings again, but more time was needed to finish preparing the various equipment and staff requirements for holding those meetings inside council chambers at the new Mountlake Terrace City Hall.

When a return to in-person meetings occurs, the city will continue to provide ways for the public to view and participate in those proceedings remotely, although it has not yet determined which online platform will be utilized.

Due to the various modern audio and video conferencing technologies available, beyond the telephone, for connecting remotely, the council had also previously discussed possibly expanding the opportunity for councilmembers to attend meetings remotely – regardless of an emergency being declared. Doing so could give them more flexibility for attendance — particularly if a councilmember is sick — than what the municipal code currently allows.

Several noted that the council had already been attending meetings remotely during the past two years and as a result was used to functioning if they were not all gathered in the same physical space. Due to the councilmembers all having previously stated a desire for returning to in-person congregations, they didn’t feel that allowing for the possibility of increased remote attendance would create problems, although it would involve an element of individual self-policing.

Following their discussions, councilmembers agreed that the draft ordinance shouldn’t include language that requires approval from the mayor in order for councilmembers to attend meetings or work/study sessions remotely, and also doesn’t require the mayor to publicly state the reason for a councilmember’s remote attendance. Historically, if a councilmember is not present, the reason for their absence is not read into the public record due to safety precautions.

Any councilmember who plans on attending a meeting remotely must provide notice to the city clerk by noon on the day of the gathering to allow adequate time for preparing the associated logistics. There is no limit to the number of times that a councilmember can attend meetings remotely and no limit to the number of councilmembers who may participate remotely. In addition, their remote attendance will be considered an appearance toward a quorum.

The council will vote on the updated ordinance as part of the consent calendar at its regular business meeting Monday night. The remote attendance policy would also apply to members of the various City of Mountlake Terrace boards and commissions.

The council also reviewed a resolution establishing Juneteenth as a legal city holiday. Traditionally, the City of Mountlake Terrace has mirrored Washington state regarding holidays — a holiday under state law is considered a city holiday for the purposes of closing city facilities and granting employees a paid day off from work. Those recognized holidays are then reflected in the city’s personnel policies and collective bargaining agreements.

Last year, Gov. Inslee signed a measure passed by the Washington State Legislature that established June 19 – Juneteenth – as an officially recognized legal state holiday beginning in 2022. Staff recommended the council adopt a resolution that amends the city’s personnel policies to include Juneteenth as a legal city holiday. The council was in support of the city officially recognizing the holiday.

Juneteenth marks the official end of slavery in the Confederacy, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation was signed by President Abraham Lincoln on Jan. 1, 1863, according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. However, not all Black people were immediately free in Texas, as the state was still under Confederate control at the time of the signing. On June 19, 1865 (Juneteenth), about 2,000 Union troops marched into Texas, officially liberating all Black people from slavery.

The city council will hold its next regular business meeting Monday, May 2 at 7 p.m. It will include a reviewing a draft of the council’s vision and goals. See the agenda and information for watching/participating online here.

— By Nathan Blackwell

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