Edmonds council opts for less transparency at meetings

‘They risk signaling to the public that they are afraid of such observation and scrutiny’
By Brian Soergel | Jan 10, 2019
Courtesy of: City of Edmonds Edmonds City Council. From left: Mike Nelson, Diane Buckshnis, Dave Teitzel, Kristiana Johnson, Neil Tibbott, Adrienne Fraley-Monillas and Thomas Mesaros.

The people of this state do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them. 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. – Washington state Legislature (RCW 42.30.010)

Audio recordings in the White House were enough to help expose President Richard Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary.

Nixon’s undoing was a key element in Edmonds City Councilmember Diane Buckshnis’ defense of voting against Councilmember Mike Nelson’s proposal to video record its monthly committee meetings.

“I have no interest in pursuing this, since audio is just as sufficient as video,” she said at last week’s council meeting, joining Councilmembers Dave Teitzel and Tom Mesaros in voting against the proposal. “All you have to do is say ‘Watergate.’ Looked what happened with Watergate. That was on audio.”

Nelson and Councilmember Adrienne Fraley-Monillas voted for the proposal. Councilmembers Neil Tibbott and Kristiana Johnson were absent.

The councilmembers’ vote came despite hearing from an advocate for open government in October who told them that they risked losing transparency in their actions and in the eyes of the public.

“I am disappointed that the Edmonds City Council is choosing not to videotape committee meetings and make those recordings easily accessible to the public,” Michele Earl-Hubbard said this week.

She is with Allied Law Group in Seattle, and is a founding member and past president of the Washington Coalition for Open Government.

“They are depriving themselves of a chance to show their constituents they really want their constituents to observe every step in the decision-making process, and they risk signaling to the public that they are afraid of such observation and scrutiny.”

Committee meetings are held once a month. Unlike regular weekly council meetings – which are recorded live and can be viewed anytime, and where public comment is allowed – committee meetings do not allow for public comment and only audio proceedings are recorded.

Those committee audio recordings cannot be listened to live and are not made available for public listening on any occasion. Instead, they must be obtained through an often time-consuming public records request. City Clerk Scott Passey said the City’s website cannot accommodate audio recordings.

In addition, committee meetings are held concurrently in three separate rooms, making it difficult for those who want to follow proceedings on City affairs as they happen. There are three committees – parks and public works; finance; and public safety, personnel and planning.

In making his proposal, Nelson said that, according to the City’s IT department, the highest monetary figure was $8,100 for the one-time purchase of a camera and installation. That is $16,200 for two cameras – one already exists in Council Chambers – plus maintenance costs of about $3,000 a year.

“We should be promoting this,” Nelson said in arguing for transparency. “It is healthy for our democracy. People should be able to see and hear the meetings, to see who’s in the room, what are we doing, what are we whispering. It’s full transparency at a minimal cost.”

Teitzel said he was all for government transparency, but was concerned about spending taxpayer money, as was Mesaros.

Teitzel did say, however, that he wants to see if there is now a demand from citizens requesting audio comments, and that the issue could be revisited. He added that another option was to go back to one study session for all committee groups, where video would be provided.

Although not present for last week’s vote, Councilmember Tibbott shared his thoughts with the Beacon this week. Johnson did not respond to the Beacon’s request for comment, nor did Mayor Dave Earling, who could have broken a tie if needed.

“I am in fully agreement with Councilmembers Buckshnis and Teitzel. Sound recordings are transparent,” Tibbott said. “No final decisions are made in committees. Furthermore, it’s difficult to communicate the interaction over diagrams and pictures presented at committee meetings even with video.

“At least all of those materials appear in the next week’s council pack for full review by the public and council prior to approving the consent agenda. If questions remain, the council and public can raise concerns at the full meeting prior to a vote.

“As you know, many of the matters brought to committee are rather mundane. Nonetheless, with Public Works and Parks Committee member Johnson and myself would routinely ask for a full presentation to the council of a particular project simply because it was interesting to us, or something we considered important for the council to be familiar with.”

Public trust and confidence

Earl-Hubbard said that, as she explained during her comments to the City Council, the public is entitled to see and hear the discussions leading up to a vote, and not just the final vote.

“Government officials should take every opportunity to invite the public in to see and better understanding what the government is doing to encourage public trust and confidence in their city and its leaders.”

Videotaping, and allowing the public to watch as it happens or click on a link on the website and watch a previously recorded committee meeting, is inviting the public into the room in a way that minutes or just audio recordings cannot provide, Earl-Hubbard said.

“I have been an open government advocate in this state for more than 20 years, and have seen firsthand the distrust and lack of confidence and understanding that occurs whenever a community feels like their leaders are trying to keep them from being able to watch and observe,” she added.

“Even if no one shows up, even if no one downloads the video and watches it all the way through, just knowing that your leaders have nothing to hide and wanted you to have the opportunity to observe makes people feel like they can trust their leaders more.

“And when those leaders take any steps to make it harder for us to watch, well, many people will assume that something the leaders did not want the people to see must have been happening.”

Seattle, Issaquah, Kent and Redmond are examples of communities that video record all their Council committee meetings.

Said Fred Obee, executive director of the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association:

"Governments should always be looking at ways they can be more transparent," he said. “Open governments are more likely to earn the trust of the people they serve, and trust is essential for good governance."

 

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