In 2020, the Poulsbo City Council will be returning to the practice of a 15 minute public comment period at the start of their meetings with more time for public comment allowed at the end of the meeting, a practice that was waived following the July 3 police shooting of Stonechild Chiefstick.
For years, it has been the practice of the Poulsbo City Council to hold two public comment periods during council meetings: a 15-minute period at the start of the meeting in which the public has three minutes to make their comment, and one at the end of the meeting to get to folks who couldn’t speak upfront.
In the wake of the officer-involved shooting on July 3, resulting in the death of a Chiefstick, the council waived the time limit to allow the public to comment on the incident. In the weeks following the incident, when the investigation was entering into its early stages, 30-40 people would take to the podium to make a comment, which would extend the meetings into the later hours of the evening. As the investigation dragged on, fewer and fewer commenters showed up, however, when details of the investigation became public, there was a resurgence, which again extended the length of the meetings into the late hours of the night.
In the last few weeks, the council has publicly discussed returning to and reinforcing the 15-minute comment period, much to the ire of the public making the comments.
During a Nov. 20 meeting, councilman Jeff McGinty reviewed the rules and procedures for city council meetings, specifically pertaining to the public comment period.
“We try to waiver from these things as we can, but if they get to be so large that we have to go back to these rules … because we weren’t able to get to our normal business agenda,” McGinty said. “It doesn’t curtail anyone from speaking it just allows business to get done in a timely manner and those people that would like to go home [can] go home.”
McGinty initially suggested that the council return to this process at the start of December and the council appeared to concur at that meeting. However, between the Nov. 20 and Dec. 4 meeting, McGinty and the council chose to continue to allow the public comment period as it has been until the last meeting in December.
“We thought we would go ahead and let everybody just speak as they have been in the past for the next couple of weeks, that’s what we’re recommending, we’re not going to change the rules now, we’ll just go ahead and let everybody talk upfront,” McGinty said at the Dec. 4 meeting.
Councilman Ed Stern, who had been absent from the previous meetings due to his duties as the President of the Association of Washington Cities, read aloud from a letter he had written to the council regarding the discussion of returning to the 15 minute public comment period.
“Applying this policy uniformly through time would tend to allow for a better and a more assured timeframe for addressing the sometimes lengthy business portion of city business we must attend to. If it was our publicly stated past practice, that is one thing, however, given our waiving of this policy in the face of community feeling and response since the July 3 police shooting tragedy, creates — for me — an appearance of a fairness issue, in my opinion, if in impression if not in substance. Remember that appearance of fairness is applied to governmental matters, may in fact, not in reality, have anything to do with actual fairness or any real conflict on the part of the governmental unit. Just that the public perceives it, it triggers that threshold … In any event, applying the citizen comment policy at this late date … after four months of open-ended testimony might, in reality, create that much more feeling and response if interpreted as an attempt to redirect, if not, limit public testimony, regardless of the council-mayor intent, which I well understand,” Stern read.
“It may be simply perceived as ‘not fair’ or at least arbitrary. We are all frustrated by the seemingly endless process of the investigation, we at the dais, Poulsbo citizens, as well as community members from afar. Nonetheless, our citizen comments portion of our council meetings are for those wishing to express their opinions and feelings, the only formal public forum for that during this admittedly interminable process before resolution can be achieved. In that regard, the venting of understandable emotion does serve us all as an important outlet of frustration. Redirecting or inadvertently curtailing such to any degree, real or perceived, could serve to otherwise engender emotions, resulting in the opposite intended effect.”
Councilman McGinty appeared to take exception to some of the comments aired by councilman Stern in his open letter.
“I just want to comment on one thing and that is the fact that any effort to curtail public [comment] … that stuff you just said there is untrue, that’s not the intention of this. That’s the perception I am trying to eliminate. So I don’t understand where that comes from. That’s been the confusion by putting 15 minutes on the front end and all the time on the bottom end, it’s not that we don’t want to hear from them. That’s the frustrating part I guess,” McGinty said.
Mayor Becky Erickson said she felt that what the council had agreed upon provides a good compromise and gives the public enough time to understand the procedure going into the coming year.