As workplaces throughout the country wrestle with when and how employees should return to work, the Spokane City Council has faced the same questions.
But the council must also consider the legal limits imposed on its meetings during a pandemic.
Three of the City Council’s seven members have regularly logged on to remote meetings from inside City Council chambers in City Hall in recent weeks – a practice City Council President Breean Beggs said he would end after an inquiry from The Spokesman-Review.
Beggs, Michael Cathcart and Betsy Wilkerson have at times participated in meetings while sitting spaced out across the dais inside council chambers, which remains closed to the public. Whether the council has been violating Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 orders may depend on the definition of “in-person.”
Inslee banned city councils and boards from meeting in-person in March with a proclamation that has since been revised but remains in effect. The proclamation states that any public agency subject to open meeting laws, such as the Spokane City Council, “is prohibited from conducting a public meeting” unless “the meeting is not conducted in-person.”
When asked if the proclamation prohibits three of seven City Council members from meeting in chambers while the rest connect remotely, an Inslee spokesman did not define “in-person” but said it would depend on the jurisdiction.
A city council in Phase 3 of the governor’s reopening plan could hold an in-person meeting, so long as the combined attendance of board members, staff and the public does not exceed 10 people.
Spokane County is not in Phase 3, however. It is in Phase 2.
The interpretation of city lawyers, Beggs said, was that the council would be in compliance with the governor’s order as long as it did not have a quorum of four members in council chambers at once. But he acknowledged that someone could read the order as prohibiting even two members from being together in one room.
With the knowledge that “anyone else might be questioning whether we are being good team players in the effort to stop COVID,” Beggs said he was “going to talk with my council members about only one of us being in chambers at a time.”
Wilkerson said she had no intention of defying the governor, but wanted to set an example for the essential workers in City Hall and her employees at the adult care facility she owns.
“They didn’t have a choice,” Wilkerson said. “What made me better than them, that I get to stay home?”
Wilkerson said being present at City Hall helped her focus on her city work. She was appointed earlier this year and faced a steep learning curve.
“I felt I could not do that learning curve from the comfort of my home,” Wilkerson said.
Inside City Council offices, Wilkerson said it has not been a challenge to social distance. Cathcart and Beggs agreed.
Cathcart said he prefers to participate in-person, and it’s “just a better way to proceed.” To allow for sufficient physical distancing, Cathcart said he would defer to more senior council members who wish to take his spot on the dais, but none took up his offer.
Cathcart said Inslee’s proclamation is “a silly order because it’s completely destroyed public participation in local policy-making.”
The other council members’ presence during meetings was the result of an “unconscious evolution,” Beggs said. Initially, Beggs was alone in council chambers and orchestrating the remote Webex meetings. Over the course of the subsequent months, Wilkerson and Cathcart began to join. Beggs did not object as long as there was adequate social distance.
“They just came down. We never talked about it, they just set up their computer and logged in with their cameras,” Beggs said.
Council Members Candace Mumm, Kate Burke and Lori Kinnear have not been in City Hall, while Karen Stratton has only occasionally dropped in. Beggs said he believes the social distancing inside the council’s office has been more than adequate, but his direction has been to “do what you feel comfortable with.”
“No one’s compelled to come back,” Beggs said.
Not only has she avoided the office, Burke said she has had limited contact with friends and family members. She admitted she has not been perfect, but said she is fearful of spreading COVID-19 and wants to set a good example for the community.
“This is going to be around for a long time and that’s really daunting, but we need to do our part to make sure people know we’re taking it seriously as well,” Burke said. “I feel very comfortable that I can do 100% of my work at my house.”
Still, Burke stopped short of criticizing Wilkerson and Cathcart, who she noted are the two newest council members.
“Maybe it’s trying to get into a routine. … I have no idea what it feels like to come into this role during COVID,” Burke said.
Stratton said it has helped her immensely to be able to work from home during the pandemic, particularly while she cares for her mother.
“I’ve had to let people know I need to stay away and be safe. I’m still on the job, I’m still working – it’s remotely,” Stratton said. “If we don’t show up at something or if the public doesn’t see us and they see others, we get that email.”
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