The city of Mill Creek resumed in-person city council meetings May 25, the first time since the statewide shutdown, while many surrounding cities are still meeting remotely.
The city’s hybrid system allows for council members or staff to attend via zoom if they are still uncomfortable or have legitimate medical reasons, according to councilman Vincent Cavaleri, yet all council members were in attendance for the first public meeting May 25.
“We the people must always have unfettered access to government. The city of Mill Creek has resumed in person meetings as of four weeks ago,” Cavaleri said.
The city has also begun a staggered or tiered opening of City Hall and City services, with the expectation of being 100% open by the end of June.
“We simply cannot allow fear to block access to government buildings and services. Simply put, someone has to be first. I am incredibly proud of my brave colleagues who put aside their own concerns for the peoples’ needs,” Cavaleri said.
While Mill Creek returns to council in-person, many meetings in other Snohomish County cities, including the Snohomish County Council, continue to operate remotely. Snohomish County Council plans to re-open the week of July 6.
According to Megan Dunn, Vice Chair and Councilwoman for District 2, the County Council will then resume in-person meetings with a hybrid option allowing remote testimony and participation. Councilman Sam Low cannot wait to resume.
“I am already hosting my Public Works Committee Chair meetings from the council offices, and I am ready to host in person council meetings now. I have been doing hybrid zoom meetings with my Rotary Club and I see no reason why we can’t do hybrid zoom meetings at the county now,” said Low.
For Everett, the city has yet to determine a date in which they will resume meetings in person.
“Our teams are working with our councilmembers on plans to return to in-person, when safe and feasible to do so,” Kimberly Cline, Director of Communications for the city of Everett, said.
According to Cline, switching to remote platforms last year, such as Zoom and Microsoft Teams, has had its pros and cons. While attending meetings remotely has made attending meetings more accessible for community members and protects the health and well-being of the community, according to Cline, “you simply don’t connect with people in the same way through a computer or phone as you do when in person.”
Many other challenges include adapting to the new technologies and formats which presented a learning curve initially, according to Cline, but has been “running much more smoothly now.”
Although council meetings in Everett continue to be held remotely, most city employees are physically reporting to city worksites now, at least part-time.
“For Everett, the safety of our councilmembers, our staff and community members has been our top priority. We have aligned our actions with the open meeting act guidelines and waivers issued by the state during this public health crisis and were able to continue to conduct city business,” Cline said.
Cline believes since switching council meetings to remote formats there has been no change in efficiencies or budget, although it is not something the city has tracked.
According to Cline, the main expense associated with a council meeting is the time of the staff and councilmembers who need to present on topics, observe proceedings, facilitate, or record the meetings. This expense varies based on what topics are on the agenda, how many staff need to participate, and the duration of the meeting.
The City of Lynnwood also continues to hold their council meetings on Zoom with discussion on offering a hybrid return to Council Chambers around July, depending on Gov. Inslee’s orders and the city’s ability to set up the right technology, however no firm date has been set as the city works on a plan to resume safely.
“We want to continue to use Zoom as a way for our public to easily connect with council. As most other cities and the county, we have increased our community participation because Zoom has made it convenient,” Mayor Nicola Smith said.
Julie Moore, Communications and Public Affairs Officer for the city of Lynnwood, says a benefit to hosting remote city council meetings has been keeping city employees safe by asking hem to stay home throughout the pandemic.
In addition, Moore shared that more community members are logging on to watch council meetings and other public meetings, appreciating that they do not need to leave their homes and interrupt their evening, dinners, homework, etc. to attend a meeting.
Under the initial Governor’s four phase approach, government buildings were not set to reopen until Phase 4.
“Limited capacity can be a tricky thing to accomplish, and we do not have staff available to be the monitor to screen individuals for symptoms, monitor appropriate social distancing, and capacity limits,” Moore said. “Our county’s case rates had been on a steady increase, so we just felt it was not safe to bring people into our buildings until we received further guidance from the state.”
Moore believes the city of Lynnwood has been more productive since switching to remote meetings and has cut costs. When the city began using Zoom, FX Video to record the city council meetings were no longer required. Savings on other soft costs such as: council, presenters, and attendees saving on commuting costs.
“We are extremely proud of the way our employees have continued to support our community with flexibility, creativity, and resiliency,” Moore said.
Mukilteo plans to reconvene in-person meetings July 6, according to mayor Jennifer Gregerson.
Gov. Inslee announced May 13 that the state is moving toward a statewide reopening on June 30, moving all counties to Phase 3 of the Healthy WA: Roadmap to Recovery. An earlier reopening date than June 30 could be achieved if Washington reaches a vaccination percentage of 70% or more from residents 16 years or older.
The state has been open to 50% capacity for indoor spaces since March 22, given the Governor’s mandates.