Responding to the threat from the coronavirus, local city councils and the Spokane County commissioners will no longer meet in person in the coming weeks.
As COVID-19 has rapidly spread throughout Washington and the rest of the United States, local governments and elected officials are adapting to evolving rules on public gatherings and access to their meetings.
The public meetings of local governments and councils will be entirely remote after Gov. Jay Inslee issued a proclamation last week temporarily suspending certain provisions of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.
The governor has forbidden all physical, in-person meetings. The proclamation also limits the actions local councils can vote on to those that are routine, such as contract extensions, or that are necessary for the jurisdiction’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At a minimum, the board or council must provide an option for the public to call in and listen by telephone.
Inslee’s proclamation expires at midnight on April 23.
City of Spokane
Inslee’s proclamation put the Spokane City Council in a quandary. Municipal code requires that the council allow for public testimony, but there’s no simple way to facilitate that digitally under Inslee’s order.
On Monday, during the first council meeting under the new rules, the public was allowed to testify on legislative agenda items by calling into a phone line and using a special access code. Each participant was given three minutes to testify, as is the case during regular council meetings, although nobody asked to speak.
The council revised city code Monday so that the public’s right to speak during a meeting may be suspended under an emergency declaration. The right still is listed in the council’s rules, so it will have to suspend its own rules to act on legislation without taking public comment.
“It would be super hard to manage,” City Council President Breean Beggs said of the call-in testimony system.
Instead, council members hope to hold Facebook live sessions with constituents prior to council meetings to receive public input, which he believes will be far more interactive and beneficial.
Beggs said the governor’s order “struck a good balance.”
“We’re essentially suspending forward progress on other issues unrelated to COVID-19 for a few weeks, which as a practical matter was already happening,” Beggs said.
Citizens still can view every committee meeting and City Council meeting live online or on CityCable 5 or by calling (408) 418-9388 and entering the access code 966 942 097 when prompted.
Public testimony also can be submitted via email at email@example.com.
Given the limitations the governor has placed on what the council can consider, it expects to move its typical 6 p.m. legislative session to its weekly 3:30 p.m. weekly briefing session.
Spokane County commissioners will meet over the phone or via Zoom, a videoconferencing tool, and members of the public wishing to attend must call the phone number provided on the agenda.
The Board of County Commissioners does not usually take public comment during meetings.
Commissioners discuss and vote on their consent agenda, which includes items such as contracts, agreements with other agencies and other county business, at 2 p.m., and hold meetings about other county business throughout Monday or Tuesday, which are also open to the public. The county’s agenda and schedule can be found on the public meeting schedule section of the county’s website.
City of Spokane Valley
Spokane Valley residents have a few options to watch City Council meetings on Tuesday nights. Members of the public can watch the meeting through an online stream that is found on the meeting and agenda section of the city’s website, tune into Channel 14 on TV at 6 p.m., or call into a Zoom meeting, which people can access by using the code 112 946 779.
Spokane Valley still will have public comment, but anyone wishing to do so must email the city by 4 p.m. the day of the meeting with their public comment, or a request to call in with a public comment during the meeting. People must email firstname.lastname@example.org and can only comment on action items during the meeting. Their request for auditory comment must include the date of the meeting they will comment, their first and last name, city of residence, the agenda items they would like to address and the phone number they will call from.
Once they have emailed their request for comment, people wishing to comment can call (301) 715-8592 or (253) 215-8782 during the meeting to participate.
This story was updated on March 31, 2020 to include that members of the public can watch Spokane Valley Council meetings on Channel 14 as well as online.
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