As governments prepare for a protracted battle with coronavirus, legislators at the national and local level are considering how they can continue to function while protecting the health of their own members and the public.
The Spokane City Council met Thursday to discuss its next steps, which could start with the postponement of a town hall meeting originally slated for Monday. Its members wrestled with balancing the need for legislative action and public input with the safety of public attendees, who are often part of a vulnerable population.
“I’m fine doing the meetings. I just get nervous if we’re going to be taking votes on things, and it’s difficult for the public to participate either in person or over the phone,” said Councilman Michael Cathcart.
Last week, the state Attorney General’s Office issued guidance to local and state government agencies detailing how to comply with the Open Public Meetings Act amid concerns about the threat of coronavirus.
The attorney general advised governments to consider whether a meeting needs to be held or can be rescheduled – or at least whether its agenda can be limited.
If necessary, a board or city council could hold a meeting with none of its members physically present. Each member could call in by phone, but the governmental body would still be legally required to provide the public access to a physical location with a speakerphone, so they could listen to meeting audio.
Governments were encouraged to provide alternative means of meeting access to the public, such as a call-in line or an online live stream. The Open Meetings Act does not require governments to allow public comment.
In its non-legislative meetings with members of the public, Council President Breean Beggs urged council members to consider teleconferencing.
“We don’t need to do that at City Hall,” Beggs said. “If we go to (teleconferencing) whenever we can, it will help.”
The Spokane City Council has a town hall meeting scheduled for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center at East Central on Monday, but the organization that oversees the center requested it be held elsewhere.
During a study session on Thursday, council members deliberated whether or not to hold the town hall meeting – during which the council hears from neighborhood council leaders.
After that discussion, Beggs said it is likely the town hall portion of the council’s agenda will be canceled. But Beggs said that with a light agenda, the meeting’s attendees would be able to adequately practice social distancing – the practice of staying at least six feet away from other people.
“When the room is not packed, there’s plenty of room,” Beggs said.
Meanwhile in Congress …
In Congress, it would take a change of long-standing rules for members who have decided to self-quarantine to vote for bills.
Members of the House of Representatives vote by electronic device but are required to be present in the chamber during a roll-call vote. Politico reported Wednesday that Rep. Jerry Nadler, Democratic chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, suggested that members be permitted to vote remotely in a weekly caucus meeting, but the idea was quickly nixed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Voting by proxy, a method where other members can cast another representative’s vote on their behalf, has been permitted intermittently throughout congressional history but only in committee hearings. Republicans effectively ended the practice when they came into power in 1994, arguing that Democrats weren’t attending the sessions where bills become law but could outvote the minority party anyway. The prohibition has remained in place since.
The Senate is required to vote by roll call. Sen. Maria Cantwell was not present for votes on the floor after a member of her staff tested positive for the coronavirus this week and the state’s junior senator announced a closure of her Capitol office for deep cleaning. Cantwell sent out a statement Thursday indicating she would have voted against the Trump administration’s nominee to lead the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
Cantwell was one of eight senators who did not vote on the resolution. Others who didn’t vote include Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rick Scott of Florida, who have also announced a self-quarantine after coming into contact with people who tested positive for the virus.
Rules in both the House and the Senate require a quorum, or majority, of members to be present before a vote can take place. During the 1918 flu epidemic, which hit Washington, D.C., particularly hard, quorums were hard to achieve. Both chambers closed their public galleries for months to avoid the transmission of the disease.
The House of Representatives, for a month, stood largely in recess at the height of the epidemic in October 1918 because of a lack of quorum. When it did meet, it could not hold votes due to poor attendance.
Rules do allow for Congress to declare “catastrophic circumstances” and lower the number of lawmakers needed for a quorum. That can only happen if the circumstances involve “natural disaster, attack, contagion, or similar calamity,” according to long-standing House of Representatives rules.
Jared Powell, a spokesman for Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, said her Capitol office is preparing in the event that workers need to telework, but there has been no determination of that yet.
“We have the ability to work remote, if needed,” Powell said. “We wouldn’t lose any functionality.”
McMorris Rodgers’ office has set up a public landing page for information on the coronavirus in Eastern Washington and advice on how to reduce its spread. The information is at mcmorris.house.gov/coronavirus.
The Idaho congressional delegation – Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher – said in a joint statement Thursday their Capitol offices would remain open, but they were directing as much work as possible be conducted via phone or email.
Authorities in both the House and Senate said Thursday that access to the Capitol Building and offices will be restricted, beginning at 5 p.m. Eastern time Thursday, to members, staff, credentialed press and visitors on official business. Tours of the Capitol grounds had previously been canceled.
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