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Spokane Valley City Council mulls shorter comment periods, advance notice for committee removal

October 13, 2018

Spokane Valley City Council is mulling revisions to the city’s governance manual that will reduce time for public comments and slightly change the process for removing council members from committees.

In the past, the city has allowed two, 30-minute time periods for public comments during council meetings – particularly in cases when a large number of residents turn out to speak, or when the meeting concerns an unusually controversial issue.

After much discussion and debate at an Oct. 2 council meeting, city officials proposed to eliminate the second time allotment for public comments and, instead, extend a 30-minute public comment period to 45 minutes.

Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins said there’s been back-to-back public comments about the same issue at several meetings. That shouldn’t happen, he said, because it’s unnecessary and holds up the meeting.

He added that state law doesn’t require a second public comment period.

“We do that as an accommodation,” he said. “As an accommodation, we do it really for the convenience of running a business meeting, which is what this is all about.”

Spokane Valley Councilman Arne Woodard said all action items on the council agenda provide opportunity for public comment. Although he wants to hear comments from residents, they have other opportunities to share feedback in person outside of council meetings, or through phone calls and email.

Woodard added that, in the past, there have been cases when public comments have gone on for hours, extending council meetings late into the evening.

“The fact is, we are way down into the evening and we haven’t even started what we have to do. We have staff here, we have public safety here, too,” he said. “I want to hear from the public, but we have to be a little cognizant of resources here in this room that aren’t able to be doing what they are supposed to be doing.

“We have to keep in mind what council meetings are for. And the council meeting is for the council to transact the business of the city in an orderly fashion, so that it can keep running.”

Spokane Valley Council members Linda Thompson and Brandi Peetz both opposed removing the second public comment section.

“I feel like leaving it in (the governance manual) is appropriate and if there comes a time where we need to eliminate a public comment period, we can talk about it at that time,” Peetz said. “I feel like our citizens want to be heard and by taking the public comment period away, it doesn’t seem right to me.”

Spokane Valley City Councilman Sam Wood was in favor of one, 30-minute public comment period.

“I think that’s a long period of time for people to speak. It seems to me the last few sessions we’ve had turned into a political debate with people disappointed with some actions we’ve taken,” he said. “I think, typically, public comment should be based on the items we’re dealing with and the public’s opinion on those and not political issues. I think limiting it to 30 minutes will start to reduce some of that.”

Peetz responded it’s not appropriate to implement a time limit on public comments, especially if removing the second time allotment.

“If (residents) come here and don’t have a chance for public comment, doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” she said. “I don’t want to limit their chance to be able to come and have a public comment.”

Prior notice sought

for committee removal

City officials also discussed a revision to the governance manual requiring the mayor to provide notice prior to removing council members from committees.

Earlier this year, when Higgins abruptly removed Councilman Ben Wick from an appointment on the Spokane Regional Transportation Council Board without warning or public notice at a study session meeting, it sparked an uproar from residents, claiming the action wasn’t transparent.

Wood said providing prior notice before committee removal is open and transparent.

“When the vote happened the night of the removal, it looks difficult, for lack of better words,” he said. “I think just a notice with the mayor’s intention of removing somebody from a committee and maybe a reappointment in advance is more transparent and I like that idea.”

Thompson also advocated providing advance notice for committee removals.

“It just is courteous and provides an opportunity to have someone else on the committee, rather than have a surprise on the dais and then have the community react,” she said. “I think it’s important that we role-model good communication and cooperativeness.”

Higgins said his right to appoint or remove council members from committees is similar to an at-will employer and advance notice of Wick’s committee removal wouldn’t have made much difference.

“Had there been a week’s notice, would that have been a different situation? No, not really,” he said. “The situation was such that the outcome wouldn’t have been any different.”

Woodard said the mayor has the right to change committee appointments.

“I’m not sure that everybody really wants to know why you are being changed or moved. Sometimes, it’s just to give rotation. Rotation is often good,” he said. “I think it’s just a matter of shifting our resources. I think we really have to remember it’s not about us individually, it’s what we do as a city, how we do it for the city and the best way to get that done. It’s that simple.”

City staff is preparing revisions to the governance manual, which will be presented again to council members at a future council meeting.

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