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City Council leaning away from changing meeting frequecy

Council President Don Persson speaks during Monday
Council President Don Persson speaks during Monday's Committee of the Whole meeting.
— image credit: Brian Beckley, Renton Reporter

Renton City Councilmembers on Monday discussed the possibility of reducing the number of regular City Council meetings each week during a lengthy Committee of the Whole meeting.

No decisions were made on the issue and while councilmembers were split on the need to change the current format, all agreed that they would like to find a way to increase public comment and input earlier in the policy-making process.

Approximately 20 residents attended the discussion, a large number for a Committee of the Whole discussion that reflected the importance some members of the community place on the weekly opportunity to address the council.

Presently, Renton is the only local council that meets weekly. Most others conduct regular meetings every other week with workshops or study sessions in between.

In the week leading up to the discussion, residents exchanged emails and plans to attend the meeting, which some saw as an attempt by the council to  limit public speaking.

However, new council President Don Persson sought to allay those fears right away, opening the discussion with an explanation that the idea to reduce meeting frequency has been one that has floated around the council for several years and as council president he wanted a formal discussion so he could remove the a topic that he said has “lingered on the table.”

Persson also said that while there may have been some questions about limiting public comment tied to this discussion, including references to an email from Mayor Denis Law regarding the council’s second public comment period at the meeting’s end, he has no intention of bringing up any reduction in comment periods while he is council president.

“(That) has never  been on the table at all,” he said.

Person said the basic idea would be to hold biweeky meetings to do the council business and use the other weeks for extended Committee of the Whole meetings, where the council could get into deeper discussions about items and possibly allow comment from the public at a time when it can actually affect the process.

Former President Randy Corman said the council has had a lot of issues recently that turned out to be much more controversial than they originally appeared and by the time public comment was received at a council meeting, most of the ordinances of policy had been drafted and the council was looking to vote, essentially making it so speakers are “set up for heartbreak.”

Corman also said the idea of longer Committee of the Whole meetings, which are scheduled prior to the regular meetings and therefore must be ended by a certain time, appeals to him as he said he “frequently” doesn’t feel he can ask even all of his questions because of the time crunch.

Councilwoman Marcie Palmer said she opposed the change in meeting frequency, but would like to see comment periods added to the Committee of the Whole meetings, saying she didn’t see why it needed to be an “either/or” situation.

Councilman Greg Taylor was also vocal in his opposition to the plan but pushed for all Committee of the Whole meetings to be in the Council Chambers and to be televised.

“What’s not working in terms of how we are operating today that calls for the need to consider these changes?” he asked.

Councilman Ed Prince pointed out that while he too would like to see longer Committee of the Whole discussions to allow a “deeper dive into issues,” adding them before a regular meeting could make it difficult for him and other members of the council who have to work until 5 to make it to meetings.

Councilwoman Terri Briere also said she generally supported a change in meeting frequency, especially because of the potential of adding comment earlier.

“It’s much better than we’re doing now if the goal is to be more transparent,” she said.

In the end, no decisions were made, but Persson said the consensus he was taking away was that Committee of the Whole meetings should be in Council Chambers and that more ideas on earlier input from citizens were needed.

At the regular meeting following, many of the residents in attendance took the opportunity to speak to the council on the issue, including former candidate and community advocate Stuart Avery, who was initially very opposed to any change in meeting frequency.

But Avery said he was “encouraged” by the discussion.

“I’m not convinced, but I’m encouraged,” he said between the two meetings. “This is the kind of healthy dialogue we need to see.”

Avery said it does often seem as though meetings are “ceremonial” and said that if a comment period was added to Committee of the Whole meetings, he could consider getting behind the change.

Dave Beedon, another regular attendee of council meetings and an initial opponent of the change, also told the council he was “quite impressed and encouraged” by the discussion.

Several commenters reminded the council the reason they were concerned is the sense that the council was not listening during the library discussion.

“This is where you get contact from the citizens,” Kathie Ossenkop said.

The City Council will take up the issue again during its council retreat in February.

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