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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Why wait? Spokane City Council members want earlier public input on bills

UPDATED: Fri., Jan. 8, 2021

Two Spokane City Council members are charting a course that could remodel how the legislative branch operates.

Members Kate Burke and Michael Cathcart are pushing their colleagues to at least consider altering the council’s process to allow for increased, earlier public input on legislation.

Although they recognize the changes will not be implemented immediately, the council members publicly outlined proposals that include allowing community input during the council’s committee meetings.

Under current rules, members of the public are not given time to comment on a legislative proposal until the day it is slated for a vote by the full council. Cathcart and Burke have proposed allowing the public time to speak during committee meetings, where early drafts of legislation are vetted and edited in a less formal setting, usually weeks in advance of a final vote.

The potential rule changes were discussed during the council’s study session on Thursday and are the culmination of discussions between Cathcart and Burke that began last year.

The council is unlikely to adopt the changes when it votes Monday on a slate of proposed amendments to its rules, but could forge a compromise that includes allowing public comment during the first of a new law’s two public readings.

Though they’re on opposite sides of the political spectrum – Burke the most liberal and Cathcart the most conservative member of the council – Burke and Cathcart have pushed the council to solicit more community involvement.

They also have shared experience.

Burke and Cathcart compared their proposed system to that of the state legislature, where both have previously worked as aides to legislators on opposite sides of the aisle. In the state legislature, they argued Monday, the public weighs in well before legislation is due for a vote, which allows legislators the time to make amendments based on constituents’ ideas.

“I think we can take the leadership and use it as an example, because they’ve been a state longer than we’ve been a city, and they have a process going that’s been working really well … it’s got checks and balances all along the way,” Burke said. “Our checks and balances are happening a little too late in the process.”

Cathcart noted that, under the council’s rules, the public can’t comment on a legislative matter prior to the meeting in which it’s scheduled for a vote. So when a major item is deferred, such as a slate of proposed tenant protections last year, the public can be prohibited from addressing it for months.

“To hold people back from the ability to talk about those issues isn’t really fair to them,” Cathcart said.

Burke and Cathcart also floated the idea of reducing the weekly council meeting to every other week. During off weeks, the council could fill the void left by its 6 p.m. legislative session with a committee meeting, which are currently held in the afternoon. The later start could make it easier for most members of the public to attend, they argued.

Stakeholders and city residents, who might not keep up with the council’s committee agendas, have sometimes felt blindsided by council actions, Burke acknowledged.

“I just don’t believe that our committee meetings are something that people can get to, and this would be a way to make it more public and make it more accessible, especially if we’re changing our process about trying to get that input early on,” Burke said.

That drew questions from Council members Candace Mumm and Lori Kinnear, who expressed concern that shifting committee meetings, typically held at 1:15 p.m., would force city staff members to work late.

They urged the council to get input from the mayor’s administration before making such a change, as Mumm argued the purpose of the committee meetings is “to hear from staff and work with staff” on legislative issues.

“A lot of them work extra hours as it is, and they’re not going to want to work after (6 p.m.) and then sit through testimony,” Kinnear said.

Kinnear credited Council President Breean Beggs, who took the helm last year, for welcoming input on the council’s rules. Previously, she noted, they were the sole discretion of the council president.

“If we need to make tweaks, certainly, but let’s be very deliberate and thoughtful about the way we go forward … and remember what the purpose of the meeting is before we start to insert other things into it,” Kinnear said.

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