After months of pandemic-related lack of public participation at Yakima City Council meetings, there appears to be momentum to bring back public comment. It’s well past time.
On a 6-0 vote Jan. 5, the council agreed to reexamine the public-comment process, which ground to a halt last spring at the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak when City Hall closed to the public and council meetings became virtual events. Since then, participation by members of the community has been limited to written comments to the council as a whole or to individual members, and those comments have not been read out loud during meetings. And despite the council’s use of video technology for virtual meetings, the public has had no such option for commenting.
Discussions on including public comment by reading emails during meetings went nowhere in May and September, as noted in a recent Herald-Republic report. This time, with a focus on oral comment through video, all six members who were present agreed that now’s the time to reexamine the process. The seventh council member, Jason White, has not attended meetings for several months.
Days before the September discussion, our editorial board wrote a strong endorsement for the return of public comments in some form or forms, noting that the pandemic was not going to ebb any time soon. “Everyday folks can and do have a lot to say about their town and how it’s being run,” we wrote. “It’s only right that public figures who are in charge hear what those folks have to say in a public setting — and that members of the public hear those comments as well.”
Especially in today’s politically charged climate, it’s more important than ever to make this happen. The council works for the public, and for months the public’s voice has been largely silenced here while other communities were finding creative ways to hear and share those voices. Yakima County commissioners asked for public comment at their most recent meeting, for example.
Our previous editorial also noted that other communities across the state were making it work, a sentiment echoed Jan. 5 by Council Member Eliana Macias, who made the original motion on the issue. Macias noted that SeaTac, in King County south of Seattle, requires preregistration for public comment and limits speakers to three minutes each for general public comment and five minutes to speak during public hearings. Numerous other cities have put technology to work and set reasonable limits in allowing their residents to speak up and speak out.
“It is long overdue for the city to make a good-faith effort to enable the public to also participate electronically with comments and personal testimony,” Macias said.
Said Council Member Holly Cousens: “I am really looking forward to finding a way to make it work for our city.”
But talk is cheap — especially when there’s no member of the public present to offer rebuttal. Action is required. We urge the Yakima City Council to set an ambitious timeline for a streamlined and fair process for public comment via video, in addition to written comments (within reason) to be read during meetings. Other cities have made it happen. Yakima’s voices have been silenced for too long.