Current regulations offer the Spokane City Council and Spokane County Board of Commissioners a potential path to holding some in-person meetings, but it remains narrow and unlikely.
Sparked by Councilman Michael Cathcart, the council reviewed its options for holding “hybrid” in-person and remote public meetings now that Spokane is in Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan.
Under current regulations, City attorney Mike Piccolo said the City Council could include an in-person component to its meetings, but it has to continue to provide the ability for remote access.
For in-person attendance, the council would have to comply with the governor’s guidelines for business meetings, which includes requirements such as a capacity limit of 25% or 200 people, whichever is less.
Masks and social distancing would be compulsory, as would stringent cleaning requirements.
“I’m certainly fine continuing the way that we are, I would just love to see a plan or a goal toward getting back to that in-person (meeting) at some future date,” Cathcart said.
Council President Breean Beggs agreed that there’s community interest in the topic, but suggested the council proceed with its all-virtual meetings until Spokane enters the next phase of reopening.
“There are some staff costs on the cleaning, and there’s also probably a staff/security cost of trying to deal with any lineup outside City Hall trying to get people in and out,” Beggs said.
County commissioners have also explored hosting in-person meetings and run into similar problems.
“In addition to the concerns about 25% capacity, there were some other issues brought up about technology capabilities in our larger rooms at the County, such as the Public Hearing Room,” county spokesman Jared Webley wrote in an email to The Spokesman-Review, adding that he’s working with county staff to have the issues addressed.
The city council considered meetings in which some of its members are in council chambers, while the remainder continue to participate remotely by video.
But it cannot offer an in-person option to council members without also inviting the public, Piccolo said, citing the advice of the Seattle-based nonprofit Municipal Research and Services Center.
City staff and council members would not count toward the room’s capacity limit, Piccolo said, but they would need to remain at least 6 feet apart. That’s according to guidance provided by Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, which “excludes staff” from occupancy calculations for business meetings. A prior Inslee proclamation established the same rules for government meetings as business meeting.
But if the number of people who wanted to attend the meeting in person exceeded council chambers’ limited capacity, even by a single person, the council would be legally obligated to cut its meeting short, Beggs noted.
Piccolo explained that the council could establish a system that allows attendees to queue outside chambers and wait their turn to speak.
“But if everybody wanted to be there for a certain topic and you’re beyond your capacity, they have a right to be there; you need to adjourn the meeting and find a bigger location,” Piccolo said.
Currently, the council president is the only member inside council chambers during meetings, which are held digitally on WebEx and broadcast to the public on CityCable 5.
Despite the in-person limitations, public access to the City Council’s meetings during the pandemic has expanded in recent months, including the reinstatement of open forum.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.