Tuesday, October 20, 2020
Oct. 20, 2020

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Clark County public meetings adapt amid COVID-19

By , Columbian county government and small cities reporter
Published:
3 Photos
The Port of Camas-Washougal practices social distancing during its meeting Wednesday at the port offices.
The Port of Camas-Washougal practices social distancing during its meeting Wednesday at the port offices. (Port of Camas-Washougal) Photo Gallery

COVID-19 has noticeably impacted even the most essential policy making processes for local governments.

The few public meetings that haven’t been canceled in Clark County will look much different over the next few weeks in response to social distancing protocols. Meetings that are taking place are not physically open to the public, and the officials themselves have leaned toward remote attendance.

“There’s a little bit of building this plane as we fly it,” Clark County Councilor Temple Lentz said.

The state Attorney General’s Office released two sets of guidelines in March on how public meetings can comply with the state Open Public Meetings Act during the outbreak. The first one came March 6. On March 26, the first full day of Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order, the attorney general released another version that accounted for the power governments have under emergency declarations.

The earlier version asked local agencies to consider which types of meetings could be canceled, how extensive agendas should be and how to facilitate remote attendance. In most cases, only an agency’s flagship board — a city council as opposed to a parks board — will meet for the time being.

The most consequential difference between the two sets of guidelines is that, despite clear language in the state Open Public Meetings Act stating the opposite, members of the public aren’t allowed to attend the meetings in person. But they still must be able to keep track of the meeting in real time, meaning boards can’t conduct business over text or email if they have a quorum.

Typically, state law requires that public meetings use a speakerphone and have a specific physical location where the public can attend if at least one board member is participating remotely. Under the March 26 guidelines, those mandates were suspended.

Additionally, the updated guidelines state that the agenda must be “necessary and routine” — sticking to action items that keep the agency functioning, avoid financial consequences or fulfill legal mandates. For instance, approval of payroll or vendor payments will continue, along with topics related to COVID-19.

“Controversial matters,” items of “high public interest” and decisions that are “out of the ordinary” should not be discussed, according to the guidelines.

“Put another way, in this unusual and urgent time when members of the public may not be attending agency meetings as they normally would, we asked, could agencies ‘hold’ on some matters until life returns to more normal,” the guidelines state.

Local meeting transitions

On March 24, the day before the statewide stay-at-home order went into effect, the Clark County Council held an alternate version of its regular meeting. Councilors met in a small conference room at the Public Service Center instead of the typical hearing room. The meeting was physically closed to the public, who could still watch on CVTV or join by conference call. Public comments were accepted over email, and county staff gave presentations by phone, a process Lentz said worked “reasonably well.”

Last week, very few public meetings were held. Essential boards and commissions in the area were largely not scheduled to meet anyway, and other meetings had been canceled.

Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency held its administrative meeting Thursday.

With the stay-at-home order in effect, Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency staffers — considered essential workers who still commute in — gathered in a conference room while maintaining social distancing protocols. Board members — including Vancouver Police Chief James McElvain, Camas City Councilor Don Chaney, Clark County Fire & Rescue Chief John Nohr and county Sheriff Chuck Atkins — participated by video.

The Port of Camas-Washougal, at its Wednesday meeting, gathered three board members and some staffers for a conference call, leaving each other space while huddled around a speakerphone.

“Fortunately, we didn’t have any glitches on the conference call,” port CEO David Ripp said. “It seemed to work.”

Except when an agenda attracts heightened interest, between five and eight members of the public regularly attend port meetings, Ripp said. A few of them called in Thursday.

“It’s different not having our friendly faces out in the audience,” Ripp said,

On Tuesday, the county council will hold its first regular meeting since the shutdown went into effect. Councilors and staff will have the option to participate remotely.

The county’s information technology staff is “working furiously on getting it set up,” Lentz said. “I know that the intent is to have the council meeting remotely through a web platform so we can all see each other.”

On Tuesday, emailed comments about the two scheduled public hearings will be read into the record. Comments on other items will be entered into the record but not read aloud. Those attending by phone will be placed on mute to avoid random comments throughout the meeting.

“This was not a decision that, I don’t think, any of us took lightly. We truly value the public input that we have during this process. But these are different times, and we need to be innovative about how we’re going to get that input and how we conduct our meetings,” Councilor John Blom said at the March 24 meeting as the council anticipated additional changes.

State law includes a declaration that was cited in the attorney general’s most recent guidelines: “The people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for the people to know and what is not good for them to know. The people insist on remaining informed so that they may retain control over the instruments they have created.”

Lentz said that, despite the unprecedented realities of COVID-19, the council is working to honor that. But since councilors cannot meet for a practice run, which would be considered a public meeting, issues that arise will require swift adjustments.

“We’re making incredibly strong, good-faith efforts to pull this together and have as much access as possible,” Lentz said. “When those problems come up, we’re going to have to deal with them in real time. I’m hopeful that everyone will have some patience and a sense of humor.”

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