Monday, June 1, 2020
June 1, 2020

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Vancouver council will discuss comment formats

Mayor's proposal of meeting rules made some people angry

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Vancouver City Councilmembers, from left, Pat Campbell, Jack Burkman, Bart Hansen, Mayor Tim Leavitt,  Jeanne Harris, Jeanne Stewart and Larry Smith listen to a speaker during a city council meeting July 12, 2010, at City Hall in Vancouver.
Vancouver City Councilmembers, from left, Pat Campbell, Jack Burkman, Bart Hansen, Mayor Tim Leavitt, Jeanne Harris, Jeanne Stewart and Larry Smith listen to a speaker during a city council meeting July 12, 2010, at City Hall in Vancouver. Photo Gallery

o What: The Vancouver City Council will discuss policy updates, including its citizen communications, in a workshop.

o When: 4 to 5 p.m. Monday

o Where: City Hall, 210 E. 13th St.

o FYI: There is no citizen communication during workshops, but public comment can be given at the end of the 7 p.m. meeting that night. The council also would have to vote on any proposed changes in a subsequent meeting.

o Online: Council agenda.

Vancouver Mayor Tim Leavitt has softened his stance on cutting off CVTV cameras during some public comment at city council meetings — but he still says changes are necessary to fix what he calls a hostile environment in council chambers.

Leavitt floated a proposal last week to move any public comment not related to that night’s agenda to a once-a-month mini-town hall that would not be televised, an idea that angered many of the council’s regular speakers.

o What: The Vancouver City Council will discuss policy updates, including its citizen communications, in a workshop.

o When: 4 to 5 p.m. Monday

o Where: City Hall, 210 E. 13th St.

o FYI: There is no citizen communication during workshops, but public comment can be given at the end of the 7 p.m. meeting that night. The council also would have to vote on any proposed changes in a subsequent meeting.

o Online: Council agenda.

Currently, citizens may speak at the end of every meeting on any subject. But Leavitt said the environment has changed to one of harassment and intimidation when newcomers express opinions — particularly about light rail and the Columbia River Crossing — that some of the regulars (who most frequently speak against the project) don’t share.

“It isn’t that some people want to use this opportunity to speak to us every week and speak to us over and over about the same topics,” the mayor said. “That’s fine. I’ve heard it for eight years now. The issue is how citizens are treating citizens. I’m looking for avenues to prevent further harassment and bullying, and provide an environment that even the Boy Scouts would be comfortable in.”

After getting feedback on his proposal, he said he’ll still advocate for monthly town halls. But he also decided that broadcasting those town halls may be beneficial as well.

“(Television) also provides some accountability to them, because … folks in TV land are able to judge them as well, and determine if the remarks that people are making are appropriate or inappropriate,” Leavitt said.

He called the evolving proposal “good council work in progress.”

The city council will discuss Leavitt’s proposal Monday during a workshop. Any policy changes have to be approved by a majority of the seven-member board; a date for a council vote has not yet been set but will likely be in March.

The mayor said he’s sure other council members and city staff have also been hearing about the subject, and he’s interested in considering their ideas as well.

Councilor Jeanne Stewart said last week that the mayor’s proposal was a blatant play to silence critics of the CRC.

She e-mailed City Manager Eric Holmes on Friday asking for a document outlining the specifics of proposed changes.

“I can’t comment on what these changes mean or what I think about them,” until she obtains the document, she said.

She questioned if the rest of the council had formed a consensus without her.

“Why am I the only one asking? Does everybody else know what’s in it?” she asked. “I don’t know what’s going on.”

Rules are legal

Stewart also sent an e-mail to the city attorney last week questioning the legality of restricting weekly public comment to that night’s meeting agenda.

City Attorney Ted Gathe responded this week that he would go over legal questions in the workshop, but added: “A public body has the right to establish reasonable rules regarding the conduct of its meetings. Such rules include the right to limit discussion to certain subject matters and to establish reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech as long as those restrictions are content-neutral.”

Several Washington cities, including Seattle and Tacoma, limit topics that can be discussed at city council meetings. In Portland, speakers may discuss off-agenda topics, but only once a month.

Citizen communication has been a constant source of friction for the mayor since he took office in January 2010. First, he increased citizen communication from biweekly to every week, but also moved it from the beginning of the meeting to the end. He also established quarterly town halls held at locations around town.

He then struggled with keeping speakers to the three-minute time limit. It was also citizen communications that touched off the “gavel down” incident with Councilor Jeanne Harris and anti-CRC speakers.

Leavitt said this latest change came following complaints from several people, including his friend, Clark County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Tonya Rulli, that they faced grunts, snickers, snide comments and stare-downs from some in the audience.

But Josephine Wentzel, spokeswoman for NoTolls.com and frequent speaker at city council meetings, said last week that neither she nor any of the other regulars have been threatening in any manner, and had “no idea” what those who complained were talking about.

She had before said her group was worried about the lack of accountability that turning off CVTV cameras could cause, but said NoTolls.com is also against having only one open comment period a month.

“What the mayor is proposing now is not acceptable. When he ran his campaign, he promised open government and more citizen communication,” she wrote in an e-mail Friday. “Mayor Leavitt is going against his word … again. Now he wants to cut off citizen communication because he doesn’t agree with their comments? What next? Will he start changing the schedule around based on age, religion, and race?”

Andrea Damewood: 360-735-4542 or andrea.damewood@columbian.com.

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