Blaine residents who wish to personally attend the next city council meeting on April 13 will not be able to do so, after governor Jay Inslee suspended key provisions of the Open Public Meetings Act and prohibited in-person attendance at city council meetings and meetings of other public bodies.
The Open Public Meetings Act generally requires the deliberations and actions of public bodies to be conducted openly, so that citizens can oversee the conduct of the people’s business. “The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them,” the Act begins. “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”
In a March 24 proclamation, Inslee used his emergency powers to suspend a key provision of the Act which states, in part, that “all persons shall be permitted to attend any meeting of the governing body of a public agency,” which includes city councils. Inslee’s Proclamation 20-28 “waived and suspended” this provision until midnight on Thursday, April 23. “Violators of this of this [sic] order may be subject to criminal penalties,” Inslee’s proclamation stated.
The proclamation allowed city council meetings to go on if they provide options for the public to attend remotely by telephone or otherwise, and if they also provide “the ability for all persons attending the meeting to hear each other at the same time.”
Blaine residents’ voices won’t be heard at the April 13 council meeting. In a separate decision made by Blaine city manager Michael Jones, audience participation has now been removed from city council agendas until “we get back to normal,” Jones said. His decision was announced on March 20, prior to Inslee’s March 23 stay-at-home order and March 24 proclamation.
Specifically, Jones modified Rule 15 of the Council Rules of Procedure by removing the audience participation portion from council’s regular agenda. His decision was conveyed to Blaine councilmembers in a memo, and the decision was made pursuant to Resolution 1800-20, which councilmembers had passed at a special meeting on March 16. Their resolution affirmed Jones’ March 13 proclamation of a local emergency related to the COVID-19 pandemic and gave Jones various emergency powers.
“I decided after consulting with the mayor to remove the audience participation time, because it meant people share a microphone and podium, and it encouraged more people to be in the room,” Jones explained. “At that time we were trying to reduce social contact. Now, of course, we are mandated to completely avoid contact if possible. We don’t intend to try to have audience participation on a conference call meeting. It is just too difficult to manage, and since audience participation is optional, not required, we can leave it off.”
Jones continued: “As soon as we get back to normal, that is, once the risk of infection is lower and we are having in-person meetings, we’ll add audience participation back on the agenda. People can send emails and letters for now. That allows participation and it can be very effective. Council has time to read the email and think about what’s been sent, rather than just hearing it in the meeting for the first time.”
For the April 13 meeting, a “very limited number” of city staff planned to be physically present in the Blaine council chambers on the fourth floor of 435 Martin Street, said city clerk Samuel Crawford. Councilmembers will participate remotely. Those Blaine residents who wish to express an opinion may still submit comments prior to the meeting, but their written communications will not be read aloud during the meeting.
(At city council meetings, the city clerk normally reads a very brief description of written communications and their dates, but not their actual content. “I will continue the normal practice,” Crawford said. “The entire written communication can still be found on the city’s website on the agenda.”)
As of March 26, city staff were testing out different methods for remote observation of the April 13 council meeting by Blaine residents. A March 26 planning commission meeting utilized the online meeting software GoToMeeting, which allowed people to listen in by dialing a telephone number, visiting a website or downloading a computer application. The instructions for the April 13 council meeting were expected to be posted to the city’s website, cityofblaine.com, once available. “The information will definitely be available to the public in advance of the meeting,” said Crawford.
Members of the public who wish to submit written comments to Blaine city council can do so by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or mailing a letter to city hall, 435 Martin Street, Suite 3000, Blaine, Washington 98230. Comments should be addressed to Blaine city council. Remember to state your full name and residential address for the record.