One of the fundamental issues, related to council meetings, is how do citizens learn what is happening if they can’t attend?
Let’s face it, unless there is a hot-button issue that packs the council chambers, most citizens don’t have the time or interest to sit through a three-hour meeting on Tuesday night. And that’s precisely why I’m there — to be your eyes and ears.
The good news is, council business meetings are broadcast live and also videotaped, so with the exception of rare technological glitches when the equipment doesn’t work, you can watch them that way.
But once a month, councilmembers break up into their three committees — Parks and Public Work; Public Safety, Personnel and Planning; and Finance — and transparency is lost. Yes, there are notes taken. And yes, there is an audio recording made on a portable device, for use later to write up meeting notes. (City Clerk Scott Passey confirms that citizens can get a copy of audio recordings by submitting a public records request via the city website.)
During the Sept. 4 Edmonds City Council meeting, there was a lengthy discussion about a special meeting planned by the Council Finance Committee and whether it should be videotaped. The purpose of the meeting — date, time and location to be determined — is to discuss in more detail a proposal that the city pick up the entire cost of parking lot and street frontage improvements for the multi-generational waterfront center building planned to replace the Edmonds Senior Center.
The Finance Committee would normally take up the issue during its meeting Tuesday, Sept. 11, but Committee Chair Dave Teitzel will be out of town. There were concerns raised about meeting transparency, since the waterfront center proposal involves a significant amount of money. (The estimated total cost of the frontage improvements, if the city picked up the entire tab, is just under $2 million.)
Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas suggested that the meeting, whenever it is held, be videotaped, stating that several citizens had requested it. Other councilmembers pointed out that this would set a precedent for future meetings, with the council having to decide which committee meetings be important enough to require video coverage.
In my opinion, this debate misses the point. All of the meetings are important enough to be streamed live and recorded.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I have continually questioned the committee arrangement, which the council has been following since May 2017. Under the previous system, council meeting nights alternated Tuesdays between work sessions and business meetings, with every meeting taking place in the council chambers, where it was video live-streamed and also recorded for later viewing — both on the city website and on cable TV. Public comments were also allowed during a specified time at each meeting, something that is not permitted during committee meetings.
The purpose, some councilmembers have said, is to give them more time to discuss topics in detail with city staff — something they don’t believe is possible during regular council meeting work sessions.
While I appreciate their opinions on the matter, I can attest — based on the late nights I spent in the council chambers covering those meetings– there were many extended discussions about a range of issues during the work sessions.
I believe the current committee system of having those three meetings simultaneously is bad for transparency and democracy. As a journalist, many times I am faced with an impossible task of trying to decide which of the three meetings is more important, as I have not yet figured out how to clone myself. Citizens, of course, have the same dilemma.
Let’s take a look at this Tuesday night’s Sept. 11 agenda, for example: In the Parks and Public Works Committee, the discussion will focus on issues related to installation of new sewer pipe along Edmonds Street. The bottom line: Unforeseen problems were discovered with the soil and now it’s going to cost more to complete the project. In the Finance Committee, topics range from bond refinancing for the Public Facilities District (which runs the Edmonds Center for the Arts) to what businesses should be exempt from business license registration fees. And the Public Safety, Personnel and Planning Committee will discuss a proposal for a new senior accountant position in the Finance Department.
Councilmembers will point out that often an issue will be forwarded to the full council for later discussion anyway. It’s up to the committee members to decide whether to recommend a considered item for additional discussion, or whether to place it on the consent agenda — which gets voted on without council discussion unless a councilmember pulls it so it can be further aired.
I would argue that citizens may never have an opportunity to judge whether that was the right decision, unless they take the time to file a public records request for audio minutes and lobby a councilmember to pull the item for more discussion.
Or perhaps they will read about the committee discussion in My Edmonds News.
That’s exactly what happened July 10, when the council’s Planning and Public Works Committee heard a city staff proposal for replacing the wooden Welcome To Downtown Edmonds sign with an updated version. The committee’s recommendation? Place it on the consent agenda for approval.
But after our story appeared, councilmembers were inundated with comments from citizens who called for the current design to remain. As a result, the item was pulled off the consent agenda and other design alternatives are now being considered.
What if I had chosen a different committee meeting to attend that night?
And while I take my role very seriously, it shouldn’t just be up to whether people read our coverage, either. Some people may not read local news at all, but may want to follow the workings of city government on their own. Government transparency makes it easy for them to do that.
If councilmembers want to continue the current committee meeting format, they should figure out a way to record the meetings live and have them archived, so they can be easily accessed by all.
— Teresa Wippel, Publisher