County commissioners consider night meetings
By JESSIE STENSLAND
Whidbey News Times Assistant editor
July 1, 2011 · Updated 4:06 PM
Island County commissioners may become night owls every so often.
The three members of the board are considering changing their usual daytime meeting schedule to include a night meeting once a month. The proposal would bring them into closer compliance with county code, which encourages them to hold public hearings at night on the fourth Monday of the month in order to allow more of the working public to attend.
The idea was discussed during a roundtable meeting of county elected officials and department heads Monday. The verdict was unclear since the commissioners are clearly divided about the wisdom of the change and nobody else had much to say.
But for perhaps the first time, the division among the three commissioners doesn’t run along party lines. Commissioner Angie Homola, a Democrat, and Republican Commissioner Kelly Emerson spoke in favor of night meetings, while Democratic Commissioner Helen Price Johnson said the county simply couldn’t afford to make the change.
“I think it’s more of a complex issue than it appears on its surface,” Price Johnson said. “...I think there’s a cost associated with it, but apparently we disagree.”
The issue was brought up early this month when Emerson sent out an email to Human Resources Director Melanie Bacon, asking her to look into what difficulties staff may have with attending a night meeting.
“I am completely against any amending of this code and know that we can easily accomplish it, and (be) ‘Budget Neutral,’ with just a little creativity,” Emerson wrote.
The county’s traditional meeting schedule has long been contrary to the county code. Homola said she brought up the issue when she first came into office, but no changes were made. Currently, the commissioners hold their meetings on the first three Mondays on the month at 10 a.m. and at 2 p.m. on the fourth Monday.
County code, in contrast, says the meeting on the fourth Monday “shall be held beginning at 11 a.m., or as soon thereafter as possible, and continuing until 9:00 p.m., unless earlier adjourned.” It goes on to say that “when possible, public hearings will be held on the fourth Monday meeting, beginning at 6:00 p.m.”
Public hearings are those matters that require an opportunity for public testimony.
Homola suggested cleaning up the section of code, which sets break times for lunches and dinners. But Emerson disagreed, saying they should do exactly what it says in the code.
“It doesn’t bring up the need to modify or amend the code, it brings up the need for us to adhere to it,” she said.
Yet Price Johnson pointed out that Emerson’s proposal would actually make it more difficult for Camano Island residents to participate in meetings. Currently, the residents can go to the Camano Annex and participate through a two-way video and audio system. But Emerson has said the annex doesn’t have the staff to keep it open at night, so Camano residents would have to drive to Coupeville to participate.
Price Johnson and Homola pointed out that the commissioners sometimes hold night meetings in certain communities if there’s an issue on the agenda that pertains to just that area.
Moreover, Price Johnson said night meetings are bound to cost the county more in overtime and overhead costs. Also, she hasn’t heard from any residents who want the change.
Planning Director Bob Pederson pointed out that requiring certain employees to attend night meetings may be contrary to labor agreements.
Homola said she would love to have evening meeting so that more members of the public can attend, but she acknowledged the challenges as well as the reality that some public hearings simply aren’t interesting to the public. Often the only public meetings the board has are on run-of-the-mill items like water franchise agreements, which no member of the public ever speaks on.
Homola said the commissioners should be flexible so that they can have evening meetings when there’s something of public interest on the agenda.
Bacon said she will continue to research the issue and report back later.
Contact Whidbey News Times Assistant editor Jessie Stensland at firstname.lastname@example.org or 360.675.6611 ext. 5056.