Commissioners ponder evening meetings for Island County

To start complying with Island County code, the commissioners may soon begin holding public hearings during the evening.

Nothing is decided, but the commissioners are also considering moving their regular Monday meetings to Tuesday and holding town hall-style meetings during the evening on a monthly or quarterly basis.

The possible changes are the result of brainstorming by the entire board, but Commissioner Kelly Emerson got the ball rolling in early January when she requested board support to hold at least one of its Monday meetings at night.

The idea is to make county government more accessible and encourage participation by offering flexibility for public comment.

“We really don’t have any time when anybody can come down after work hours and comment,” Emerson said.

Evening meetings are occasionally held for special issues, but the board’s regular Monday and Wednesday meetings are held between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the week.

Aside from the Port of Coupeville, it is the only government organization on Whidbey Island that holds its primary business meetings during the day.

Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley, the three school districts, the three fire districts, the Port of South Whidbey and the two parks districts hold their meetings in the evening.

Emerson’s proposal was tabled in January. The proposal got more traction during a work session last week.

Commissioner Jill Johnson said she is a “fan” of the proposal but questions whether the Monday meeting is the best choice.

“I’m not saying no because I like the evening concept,” Johnson said.

The more formal of the board’s two regular meetings, Mondays are the time when the commissioners vote on the day-to-day minutia that keeps county government functioning.

Most of it is approved at once in a consent agenda and isn’t typically what the public is interested in, she said.

Johnson suggested a quarterly town hall-type meeting might better achieve the goal of having more public participation.

“I’m not opposed to evening meetings either but I don’t know that we need them every month,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson, current board chairwoman.

She said all of the board’s meetings are either videotaped or recorded and put online for public viewing. The public also actively uses email to communicate with individual commissioners, she said.

County code does have some requirements concerning public hearings. When possible, they are to be held 6 p.m. on the fourth Monday of the month.

“It’s not something we practice,” Emerson said.

A public hearing is different from a public meeting. Required by law, it’s the formal time set aside for public comment on an issue prior to action by a decision-making body.

Comments provided become part of the legal record.

While there are cases of timeliness when it’s not possible to have a public hearing at the end of the month, there was consensus of the board that the code should be followed more closely.

Less clear is whether doing so will meet Emerson’s request, or if the board will also pursue holding town hall meetings. Moving the Monday meeting to Tuesday was also undecided as it may have unseen impacts on the work flow of county departments.

Both issues will be discussed again at a future work session.

If the board moves ahead, especially with moving its regular meetings to Tuesday, Price Johnson said it will be a big shift in the way business is conducted.

It will likely take time to implement, she said.

“You don’t make those kind of changes quickly to county government,” she said.

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