Yakima Council member Jason White participated in his first council meeting in more than a year on Tuesday as the Council pursued a charter amendment to remove council members from office if they fail to attend meetings.
The council unanimously agreed to direct staff to bring back a resolution to place the issue on the November ballot for voters.
Yakima’s existing rules don’t say anything about removing a council member if there are multiple absences. Yakima is a charter city, which is different than other cities in Washington which outline attendance policies in statutes. In Yakima, amendments like this one must be in the city’s charter, said Sarah Watkins, city attorney.
The charter change came up because there is no other way to hold council members accountable to attend meetings, Watkins said.
The change is aimed at White, who hadn't participated in meetings since June 2020. White’s term expires on Dec. 31, 2021. He is not running for reelection.
He supported the charter change.
“Even though this is geared towards me, I definitely appreciate the transparency in government,” White said. “This is a very precise charter amendment, but I think this charter amendment can be expanded upon.”
White unsuccessfully suggested a change to remove council members if they go against their own ordinance or issue.
Watkins said the proposed amendment covers attendance and not behavioral requirements.
Specifically, it would allow the council to declare a seat vacant if a council member fails to attend three consecutive regular Council meetings or six or more regular City Council meetings during any calendar year without being excused by the Council.
It was included with several other proposed charter changes, most of which were procedural.
Mayor Patricia Byers sought to remove the attendance requirement, saying it is highly unlikely that a circumstance like the one with White will happen again and the removal of a council member should be left in the hands of the voters. Byers was the only person to vote yes on her motion.
“I am concerned that this particular request for a city-chartered change is a major step based on an overreaction to an isolated event,” she said.
Council member Kay Funk said attendance should be required.
“I think a meeting attendance rule is totally impartial, unbiased, applies to all and is the minimum duties of a city council member,” she said.
Council member Holly Cousens agreed: “I think we do have a duty to represent our district and the people of our district, so we do have a duty to be here and to be the voice of our constituents."
Council member Brad Hill said he thinks the attendance amendment would be overwhelmingly popular with voters and he would be surprised if 95% of voters did not vote in favor of it.
“I think it should go on the ballot,” Hill said.
Lund agreed that the council should pass the proposed charter.
“To me, Councilman White doesn’t owe it to us to be here, he owes it to his voters,” Lund said. “Let’s let the voters decide.”
White has had a tumultuous past year on the council. The council formally reprimanded him in a 5-2 vote in April 2020, saying posts he made on his personal Facebook page violated the council’s code of ethics and principles of conduct. In those posts, he insulted the leader of Yakima Pride and said people who were healthy didn’t need to wear masks.
In May, a Benton-Franklin Superior Court Judge Bruce A. Spanner ruled there was not enough evidence against White in a recall petition submitted by Yakima attorney Liz Hallock and petitioner David Briggs. The petition cited White's statements that spring and spotty attendance.
In August, Washington Supreme Court ruled against the recall on appeal. A written decision in October said while White’s statements might have been “scientifically inaccurate and intemperate” they were not the basis for recall. The court said White’s ongoing absences from council meetings also were not a basis for recall, since there was no evidence they impeded the city government from functioning.
White continued to collect a $1,075 monthly stipend for council meetings last year, though he wasn't participating in council or committee meetings.
White lobbed a series of personal attacks and accusations against Lund at the end of Tuesday's meeting. Lund and other council members objected to the statements.