Langley Council divided over best practices for public meetings

At least two members wonder if the convenience of attending from home is worth connectivity issues.

In an era where teleconferenced public meetings have become the norm, at least two members of the Langley City Council are wondering if the convenience of attending from home is worth the connectivity issues not meeting in person can cause.

During a meeting earlier this month, Councilmember Thomas Gill broached the topic of best practices for not only the city council, but for the dozen citizen boards that also regularly convene.

Gill said that he has heard from members of the community that it is difficult for them to follow or participate in the many meetings both the council and the citizen-led commissions have. With the assistance of Councilmember Harolynne Bobis, he drafted a proposed set of rules for them to follow.

As he pointed out, voices and sounds can easily get melded together on audio recordings of meetings, and it can be difficult to tell who’s speaking, especially when some committees don’t include introductions at the beginning of the meetings.

Some committees, such as the Finance and Personnel Legislative Commission, don’t have a physical meeting location, which Gill said creates an additional barrier for members of the public wanting to participate. Additionally, he recommended having a quorum of board members as a backup in case there are network connectivity issues, so a meeting doesn’t have to be canceled.

“Especially in wintertime, we’re not in a very technologically robust community, and the slightest power outage would cause great havoc among those connected in Langley,” Gill said.

Councilmember Craig Cyr said he was skeptical of Gill’s proposal, which includes rules requiring all meetings to be based in council chambers. A number of committees allow South Whidbey residents living outside of Langley city limits to be members, and he said he thought the in-person regulations would reduce their participation “fairly precipitously.” He feared they would see resignations when it is difficult enough to recruit members, and said he had even heard from a chairperson of one commission that they would resign if the proposal was implemented.

Cyr added that online participation in meetings is more equitable for parents. Requiring in-person attendance, however, increases carbon dioxide emissions because of those driving in from around South Whidbey.

“One of the silver linings of the last three years is discovering that video conferenced meetings can be very effective and enhances the ability of Langley to address all of the public policy issues we face,” he said.

Similarly, Councilmembers Gail Fleming and Rhonda Salerno also opposed Gill’s proposal.

“I know that we have made mistakes, but I think we have such a very incredible community that’s honest and diligent when it comes to doing their work, and I wouldn’t want to do anything to discourage them,” Salerno said of the committee members, who are all volunteers.

Both Salerno and Fleming said they had had different experiences than Gill and heard no complaints from constituents about the meetings.

Bobis, who assisted Gill in his proposal, was the only other council member to speak in support of it.

“I also am not thrilled with all of the commissions we have,” she said. “I’m interested in determining how much staff time is taken up, because staff time equals money.”

Each board meeting is attended by a city staff member.

“It’s very hard to talk about anything when people come not exactly open-minded, and I have spoken up before that I want us to look at this from the standpoint of the city of Langley,” Bobis said.

Bobis added that while she is not excited to come down to city hall for council meetings, she shows up because she thinks it’s important. She and Gill both attended the Sept. 5 council meeting in person, while the other members participated virtually.

Gill said he would appreciate feedback from Cyr, Fleming and Salerno on the proposal, which was included in the council packet. He also expressed some frustration about how that night’s council meeting had gone that were related to technical difficulties.

“The longer we let this stew, the longer we let this go, the more likely we’re gonna have angry residents come to us to say we’re not doing our job, or we’re not listening to them,” he said.

Mayor Scott Chaplin pointed out that while state law requires having a location where the public can come, it doesn’t require any of the commission or council members to show up in person. Gill countered that staff members who start the meetings and then leave creates a false sense of public participation, and said there’s nothing that says they can’t go above and beyond the current requirements. Chaplin added that increased rates of COVID-19 might also cause people to participate from home.

In the end, the council agreed to discuss the proposal again at a later date, perhaps in October.