Yakima City Hall 2.jpg

FILE — The council chamber at Yakima City Hall is pictured on Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2019, in Yakima, Wash.

The Yakima City Council likely will wait for in-person meetings to resume before restarting public comment during meetings.

The city of Yakima suspended in-person attendance at council meetings in April, following a statewide emergency order related to COVID-19. A majority of Yakima City Council members have since called in to meetings remotely, and the city has encouraged residents to submit public comment via email or phone.

Mayor Patricia Byers said the city’s legal department reviewed the COVID-related guidelines related to open public meetings, which she said “left some questions open,” and advised the council on the best way to proceed.

“Our legal department initially advised us to not conduct public participation sessions during the meetings,” Byers said. “However, I don’t think any of the state or local offices suspected how long this would continue.”

Some cities have found ways to include public comment in council meetings during the pandemic. Kirkland has the city manager read emailed comments, and the council is allowing people to use Zoom in real time or email links to YouTube videos with their comments, said Toby Nixon, president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government and a Kirkland City Council member.

The Yakima City Council hasn’t shown much inclination to budge from its new procedures. A motion from Council member Jason White to have submitted public comments read during the meetings failed on a 5-2 vote, and a request from Council member Kay Funk to include public comments with agenda packets posted online also wasn’t acted on.

Emails preferred

Most council members said in July they would prefer for people to keep contacting them by email.

Council members Holly Cousens, Brad Hill and Byers said that public comment is supposed to be a one-way street. Members of the public can voice their comments or concerns, but the council isn’t supposed to respond. Emails and phone calls, by contrast, allow council members to engage, the three council members said.

“The best way to reach council is and has always been email,” Hill said. “Public comment is one-way, and having it written down in an email is much more efficient if I have follow-up questions for the constituents or staff.”

Byers said emails allow her to thoroughly consider and respond to comments, and the council’s current practices comply with the state COVID-19 order.

“Guidelines do discuss limiting meetings to essential business, that is what we try to adhere to,” Byers said. “I would like for things to remain that way until council meetings are open for public attendance again.”

Council member Soneya Lund said she’s open to the idea of reinstating public comment if staff can find a secure way to include comments during meetings.

“The No. 1 concern has always been security,” Lund said. “I am not opposed to public comments as long as the transmission could be secure and time managed.”

Council consensus would be required to reinstate public comment during meetings. One way to get there would be for a council member to move to add a discussion to a meeting agenda or to request a specific action for the council’s consideration.

White said he supports allowing public comment again at meetings. But he has not attended the council’s meetings since June 16, when the council considered expanding permitted cruising events, a move that White supported. He left midway through that meeting, after the council voted against permitting the additional cruises during the pandemic.

White’s absence has been noted by more than just his District 2 constituents, including Cousens.

“District 2 has not had council representation at our last council meetings,” she said. “If anyone in District 2 would like to have their voice heard, I would encourage them to reach out to me. I will do my best to address their questions, concerns, and needs.”

Cousens said she’s been trying to make herself more available since the pandemic has shut down public comment and that she’s interested in exploring additional ways to connect with the public. She attended several farmers markets, where she helped distribute masks and information to city residents before the council suspended city presence at the events.

She’s working with city staff to create a virtual town hall where people can voice their comments and concerns.

Cousens said she’s open to online Zoom meetings with city residents who wish to speak with her. She also encouraged people to continue to reach out to council members.

“Please contact us via phone or email as your voice have value,” Cousens said. “I personally want to hear from you.”

The council’s next meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Aug. 4. The meeting will be conducted via speakerphone, livestreamed on the city’s website, and telecast live on YPAC and Spectrum Cable Channel 194. People can submit written public comment to the council by emailing ccouncil2@yakimawa.gov. Comment received by 3 p.m. on Aug. 4 will be forwarded to council members prior to the meeting.

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Reach Lex Talamo at ltalamo@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: @LexTalamo.