The Yakima City Council shot down a proposal Tuesday to read emailed public comments aloud during meetings.
The council nixed the request from Councilman Jason White with a 5-2 vote, with White and Mayor Patricia Byers voting in favor.
An emergency order from Gov. Jay Inslee modified provisions of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes included suspending in-person public comment on general matters during meetings and limiting discussion points to only essential matters.
As a result, the Yakima council and other government bodies have suspended in-person public comment, encouraging people to submit comments by email or mail instead. A majority of council members are calling into meetings to maintain social distancing.
White, in asking for the topic to be added to the council’s June 2 meeting, said the council was making critical decisions without the voices of constituents being heard.
“People are not getting to voice their concerns or their input on these critical decisions,” he said. “Other cities around the state I have talked to are doing something similar, having staff or the mayor read off public email.”
Byers, as well as Councilwomen Eliana Macias and Soneya Lund, said meeting by phone has created communication challenges, made proceedings more difficult to follow and lengthened discussions.
Tuesday’s meeting involved frequent silences to allow for delays in council member responses, as well as several breaks so council members having difficulties with their remote connections could hang up and call back in.
The meeting — which included a council report, two proclamations and four department items for discussion — lasted close to four hours.
Byers questioned how much longer meetings would last should public comment be read aloud, though she added she had committed to sitting through meetings that last more than three hours.
Macias and council members Kay Funk and Brad Hill said reading emailed comments at meetings that they read in advance would be too time consuming.
“I’ve never had a problem with constituents getting in contact with me,” Hill said, then pointed out the meeting had just eclipsed the 3 hour and 15 minute mark.
Funk suggested staff could make public comments more accessible by adding them to the agenda packet posted on the city’s website prior to each council meeting.
City Attorney Jeff Cutter said general public comment is not required by state law, though the Yakima City Council historically has had comments during meetings.
The council first rejected adding a discussion about public comment to the June 2 meeting with a 5-2 vote, with Byers and White voting in favor and Funk, Hill, Lund and Macias and Councilwoman Holly Cousens voting against.
The council then rejected White’s motion to have staff read emailed comments aloud with the same 5-2 vote.