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Friday, October 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Valley public commenters will now have to stick to city business after city council vote

UPDATED: Wed., Sept. 23, 2020

Council members Ben Wick, right, Pam Haley, Rod Higgins and Arne Woodard listen at a meeting on July 10, 2018.  (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Council members Ben Wick, right, Pam Haley, Rod Higgins and Arne Woodard listen at a meeting on July 10, 2018. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Public comment at the Spokane Valley City Council meetings will be restricted to city business, a change council members say they hope will cause fewer distractions.

Over the last few months several community members including a former mayor, a parent of a council member and a frequent public commenter held prolonged conversations across several comment periods arguing about electioneering, decorum during meetings and the appropriate use of public comment itself.

Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick said he hopes the change will keep the meetings focused on business and eliminate the back and forth between several community members.

“Things kept getting worse and worse, and I felt like we needed to make a change to end that cycle,” he said.

Council members voted 4-3 for the change, with the group of more moderate council members including Ben Wick, Brandi Peetz, Linda Thompson and Tim Hattenburg voting for the restriction to city business, and former mayor Rod Higgins and council members Arne Woodard and Pam Haley voting against it.

The City Council voted on the changes last week, but general public comment is only allowed at formal meetings, so the community will not have another opportunity for general comment until the next formal council meeting. Formal meetings occur every other week.

Brandi Peetz, a frequent target of those who use public comment, said the change isn’t meant to shield her or other council members from criticism.

“Nobody likes to be a target, but it’s also part of my job,” she said. “I listen, take in feedback and go about the rest of the meeting.”

The council also voted to limit people to one public comment period. Earlier this year the City Council voted to expand to two public comment periods during a formal meeting. Peetz said that was meant to give those who couldn’t attend a whole meeting, or missed the beginning of the meeting, a chance to comment, not to give someone two three-minute comment periods.

Rod Higgins, who is also a frequent target of public comment, said he would have preferred the change go to the governance manual committee before the council voted on it, and said he didn’t see the changes as necessary.

He argued people who use public comment to talk about noncity issues will likely find a way to continue doing so. He noted that when he was mayor and ran the meetings, he frequently called out people commenting for being “too political” or getting off track, and would shut down comment if it got out of hand.

“I think there’s a false sense of security,” Higgins said. “I don’t believe it’s going to change anything, because it goes back to the chair of the meeting, and taking control of the meeting.”

Wick said he thought it might be unfair to intervene before because the council hadn’t adopted rules for those situations. Before the council restricted comments last week, the only restrictions they had in place were a time limit and not allowing election activity. He said now that council members have agreed upon a set of rules, and have publicly discussed them, he will enforce them.

“It’s the council’s meeting, it’s not the mayor’s meeting,” he said.

He said he’s hopeful these changes will make the meetings more efficient, and won’t discourage those with comments for the City Council from participating.

“We are here to help serve our city of Spokane Valley, and please don’t be afraid to talk to us,” he said.

During the pandemic, members of the public must sign up for public comment by 4 p.m. the day of the meeting. Sign-up information can be found on the city’s website. Participants can find out more details on public comment by calling the city clerk at (509) 720-5102.

This article was corrected to reflect that public comment at city council meetings occur at formal meetings, which are every other week.

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