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July 1, 2022

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Vancouver council proposes a solution for citizen communication commotion

Comment on topics not on the agenda would be preserved

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The hotly contested subject of citizen communication cooled to embers Monday night as the Vancouver City Council finalized its plan for the way people are allowed to comment at meetings.

The council firmed its plan to limit public comment on non-agenda items to twice-a-month at the conclusion of meetings, while allowing citizens to speak on any agenda-related matter toward the beginning of each weekly meeting.

The any-topic citizen forums are slated to be biweekly affairs that would feature up to 90 minutes of public comment, three minutes per speaker, and a half-hour allotted for councilors to mingle with meeting attendees. The forums will be held at the end of the council’s consent agenda meetings, which are typically shorter than their biweekly regular meetings that include proclamations, a consent agenda and public hearings on topics.

Consent agenda meetings will begin at 6:30 p.m., moved back a half-hour from the current start time of 6 p.m., with the citizen forum at the end of that meeting. Workshops will run from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.

The plans, firmed up Monday night and set for a vote by the council on March 21, was the result of several well-attended and much-debated meetings surrounding citizen communication.

On March 1, Vancouver businessman and NoTolls.com financier David Madore called on the council to not shut down citizen communication and agreed to remove a video of the infamous “Gavel down” incident involving Mayor Tim Leavitt and Councilor Jeanne Harris from his website if some open mic opportunities for off-agenda comments are preserved.

Last month, Leavitt had proposed cutting all nonagenda communication at weekly meetings, and relegating them to once a month forums where CVTV cameras are turned off. He later softened his stance. He had said a pervasive mood of intimidation from certain speakers to others in the council audience was prompting his move.

While the particulars of the citizen forum did not change much during Monday’s meeting, the council did go well over the half-hour allotted to discuss the matter. They veered into discussions about freedom of speech — among other topics — including a call by Harris to ban signs in council chambers, which she said are also intimidating.

City Attorney Ted Gathe said that disruptive signs that block views or passage would be forbidden, but it would be a “slippery slope” to ban signs themselves.

“Signage is protected speech,” Gathe said. “The ability to express one’s beliefs, I don’t think we can regulate that.”

Councilor Jeanne Stewart said it’s impossible to create a perfect “neutral environment” for everyone at city council, due to the controversial nature of some city decisions.

“I think signs are a demonstration of free speech or expression,” Stewart said. “I think the mayor can say to ‘settle down with the signs’ or ‘signs have to go,’ but we can’t create a rule for everything.”

“I disagree with you,” Harris replied. “I think it should be civil and always be civil.”

Signs remained out of the new citizens’ communication ordinance language.

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

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