Government transparency was in the spotlight during a recent Edmonds City Council meeting, as the council discussed how far it should go in providing coverage of its monthly committee meetings.
Edmonds City Council President Mike Nelson invited Michele Earl-Hubbard, board vice president for the Washington Coalition on Open Government and a media law attorney, to speak at the council’s Oct. 2 meeting. The discussion focused on whether the council should extend its current practice of video live streaming its council business meetings to committee meetings.
The Washington Coalition for Open Government is a non-profit committed to helping foster open government processes.
In explaining the issue, Nelson pointed to a Sept. 9 publisher’s column in My Edmonds News, titled “Let’s Talk About Transparency.”
Nelson noted that council committees used to meet during regular business meetings, and “it was all live and televised.” But the council changed its committee structure and now has three committees, which meet once a month, in three separate rooms at the same time.
An audio recording is made for the purpose of minute-taking, but if citizens want to obtain a copy of that recording they have to ak for it via a public records request. “So right now, pretty much what’s accessible to citizens online is (written) minutes,” he said.
“I think we need to do a better job of that, in terms of transparency,” Nelson said. “If folks can’t be there, the next best thing is to see us live and in person.”
Earl-Hubbard encouraged the city council “to do in your committee meetings what you already do in your council meetings,” providing an on-demand video recording of each council meeting, available on the city’s website, for those who can’t attend meetings in person.
She also acknowledged the challenges facing the press, “as we have this dwindling number of journalists and this volume of material they have to cover. They can’t be in all the places they need to be.”
“The reason I urge you to add to your committee meetings what you already do in your council meetings, is because we all know that seeing is believing,” Earl-Hubbard said. “Yes, a citizen could come in right now with their iPhone and they could record it themselves. They could put it up on a YouTube channel, they could put it up on their Facebook page, they could put it out there. And it would be their version, and it may not be authentic and it may not be gavel to gavel, and it may be take out of context.”
It’s always wiser for the government “to be the one to control the mic, to record it and put it all out there so that we know what happened gavel to gavel,” Earl-Hubbard said. “But more importantly, it’s telling your constituents that you want them in the room, that you have nothing to hide, that everything that is factoring into your decision is proper and you want them to understand it.”
If you don’t let citizens in the room, she added, “they will think whatever you are doing is wrong, is bad and is so much more important than it probably really is, and they may sue to get into that room.”
Since the council already has a system in place to live stream and record council meetings in the council chambers, Earl-Hubbard reasoned, it shouldn’t cost much more money to extend that practice to the additional two committee meeting rooms. By doing so, all proceedings would be available for citizens to view, she said.
“I think that any city council that is proud of the work they are doing, needs to make their work accessible to their citizens,” she said, adding that a number of cities statewide — including Seattle, Issaquah, Kent and Redmond — are doing video recordings while a few others are doing audio-only records.
Noting that there already is an audio recording made, Councilmember Diane Buckshnis asked Earl-Hubbard whether she “considered audio to be non-transparent?”
While audio is helpful, the city’s current audio system is “not sufficient,” Earl-Hubbard replied. “I don’t think your audio is available on demand, accessible, running live stream. It requires a human to request it, to then get a copy of it, and there’s always that doubt,” she said.
What followed was a several-minute exchange between Buckshnis and Earl-Hubbard on the issue.
“Do you realize that our meetings are maybe not as exciting as Seattle?” Buckshnis asked. “I can think of maybe three instances in the last nine years that could really be exciting.”
“It isn’t about excitement,” Earl-Hubbard replied. “Again, it’s not whether it’s exciting, if we don’t let them see it, they will think it was exciting.”
“You make it sound as though that because we don’t do (on-demand) audio that we are being bad or that we are being non-transparent,” Buckshnis countered. “There’s nothing wrong with an audio transcript.”
Earl-Hubbard reiterated that the city has already chosen to video record council meetings, so when it doesn’t video record committee meetings, “it makes the public wonder why. Are you moving things to a committee because the cameras aren’t there? Are you moving things to only audio and we can’t see the visual?”
“The problem is, because we are so used to seeing, when you only tell me I get to listen, I’m going to think I’m missing something,” she said.
Replied Buckshnis: “My point is, there is not that much interest. People may think that it is interesting but if you were to go through all of our meetings, listen to all of our meetings, we don’t make decisions in a committee structure. The decisions are made in the structure of the city council.”
Buckshnis then noted that following a hearing in the council committee, the item in question is either sent on to the consent calendar or it can included as part of a future regular agenda for a public presentation.
“In terms of all the decisions that are made, there really aren’t decisions that are made,” Buckshnis said.
in response, Earl-Hubbard quoted from Washington State RCW 42.30.010, the preamble to the Open Public Meetings Act, which states: “The people of the state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. 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 maintain control over the instruments they have created.”
“What that says to me,” Earl-Hubbard said, “is that the public gets to decide what is important, the public gets to decide what it is interested in, and if you choose not to make something available to your public, they will doubt your motives for doing so.”
Replied Buckshnis: “We haven’t had complaints from our public other than when it started just recently.
“What you are trying to tell me is that what I’m doing is bad,” Buckshnis continued. “And it’s not bad. It’s still open public management.”
“What I’m trying to tell you,” responded Earl-Hubbard, “and I have said, you don’t have an obligation to do it, but I am here on behalf of the Washington Coalition for Open Government urging all of you elected officials to do a greater service to the constituents that you serve, as well as send a message to other citizens in Washington, that Edmonds wants the public to see what it is doing.”
Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said she agreed with Earl-Hubbard’s assessment, and would like to investigate options for at least audio recordings of meetings that are made available on demand.
She said she agreed with Buckshnis that “a lot of what we talk about is kind of dry and slightly boring, but there are topics that people have interest in.”
Edmonds Mayor Dave Earling then proposed that city staff research the logistics involved in implementing an expanded recording system. “We will pull together some information since there is undoubtedly interest in pursing it a bit,” he said.
Councilmember Dave Teitzel replied he supported the mayor’s proposal, adding he would like to see a range of options, “such as what would the cost be to post the audio recordings online and make those available on demand.”
— By Teresa Wippel