April 18, 2024 12:04 pm

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Investigation finds Lynnwood illegally changed public comment policy

LYNNWOOD—A Lynnwood Times investigation finds that Lynnwood Council leadership and the mayor’s office may have unintentionally violated multiple state laws, its municipal code, and its Council Rules and Procedures by changing its public comment policy for its December 11 Business Meeting without an official motion by the council nor the passing of a resolution.

Ever since the October 7 terrorist attack against Israel by Hamas, a group of individuals have been exploiting public comment privileges within government meetings throughout Puget Sound spewing racist, homophobic, and antisemitic remarks. After Lynnwood fell victim to the pranksters at its November 27 meeting, the Council Leadership and Mayor Christine Frizzell released a statement on November 30 condemning the “hate-filled speech” and announced they were taking steps “to improve our practices and procedures to address future incidents of this nature.”

The City announced on Thursday, December 7, through its eNews service to subscribers stating, “The City of Lynnwood and City Council have updated its remote public comment process for the City Council Business Meetings.” The announcement informs recipients to register “at least 24 hours prior to the Business Meeting” and provides a link to an online registration form requiring a remote attendee’s name, address, and nature of comment—a specific agenda item or public comment.

lynnwood public comment
Snapshot of Lynnwood City Council remote meeting public comment form. SOURCE: Lynnwood City Government

The rule change to public comment took effect without the knowledge of any of the other council members and the Lynnwood Times was told by multiple council members that they found out about the rule change from local news outlets.

“Due to the recent occurrences of hate speech, I understand the need to change the Zoom policy for public comment in our city council meetings,” Councilman George Hurst told the Lynnwood Times. “However, I was surprised that council members had to find out about the change from the news media. The council was not given the opportunity for input.”

At the City’s first Business Meeting on December 11 after the rule change, there was no motion presented to the council for a change to its rules and procedures regarding public comments nor was this listed in the meeting’s Consent Agenda. However, the December 7 communiqué of the rule change explicitly states that the “City of Lynnwood and City Council” updated the process. 

lynnwood public comment
Image of December 7 communiqué sent to eNews service subscribers announcing the rule change. SOURCE: City of Lynnwood.

The Lynnwood Times investigation uncovered that at no point from November 30 to the December 7 date of the communiqué that council members were informed, voted on, nor discussed possible rule changes to remote public comments.

Jim Smith
Jim Smith

“This is just another example of the Executive members of the City not following both City and State Rules and regulations,” former Lynnwood City Councilman Jim Smith wrote in a December statement to the Lynnwood Times prior to his term expiring. “They appear to feel like they are the ‘bosses’ of the City Council. Council rules that were passed by the City Council cannot be violated by the Mayor and Council leadership.  They do not have that authority and, quite frankly, it is an insult to the entire Council and the citizens of Lynnwood.”

When asked to provide the policy, resolution, or Lynnwood Municipal Code governing the authority to make changes to the Lynnwood City Council Rules and Procedures, City Spokesman Nathan MacDonald in a statement to the Lynnwood Times wrote, “Rule 1.A [of the Rules and Procedures] allows a suspension of any rules, including Rule 14.C which governs remote public comment. This update is also in accordance and compliance with RCW 42.30.240 as well.”

MacDonald informed the Lynnwood Times that “our team worked with Council Leadership and the city attorney to complete” the rules and procedures update regarding public comment. Our follow up question for clarification of who comprises “our team,” was answered with “This decision was made under the advisement of our city attorney and was approved by Council Leadership.”

George Hurst
George Hurst

“I am also concerned about the administration’s claim that they can suspend Council rules without Council approval,” Councilman Hurst told the Lynnwood Times.  “In fact, only the City Council can vote to change Council rules.  While placing limits on public comment is sometimes necessary, the City Council sets the rules for its meetings; the mayor does not.”

According to the Lynnwood Rules and Procedure, adopted with a resolution by the City Council on May 8, 2023, and signed by Mayor Frizzell on May 17, states RCW 35A.12.120 “authorizes the City Council to adopt rules of procedure.” This is further reinforced by Lynnwood Municipal Code (LMC) 2.04.010.C which reads, “The city council may by resolution adopt rules and procedures for conducting business meetings.”

Rule 9, Council Meetings – Agendas & Order of Business, states: “The Council President and Vice President, in consultation with the Mayor and the Mayor’s designee, shall set the agenda for all Council meetings, provided the Council may amend the agenda in accordance with Robert’s Rules, state law, and City ordinances and resolutions.”

Nowhere in the Lynnwood Rules and Procedures nor in the City’s LMC does it give the mayor nor Council Leadership the authority to amend its procedural document without a majority vote by the council.

The Revised Code of Washington (RCW), the statutes governing the laws of Washington state, specifically RCW 42.30.240 provided by the City to justifying the rule change, reads the “governing body” has authority over public comment “except in an emergency situation.” A governing body as defined according to RCW 42.30.020 refers to a city council in this matter.

The Lynnwood Times investigation found that at no point was there a vote authorizing the rule change by the Lynnwood City Council prior to the December 7 announcement of rules changes to the remote public comments process, nor was there a vote anytime between the December 7 and the December 11 meeting, nor was there a vote at the December 11 meeting to amend the Lynnwood Rules and Procedures. The City and Council Leadership made changes to the council’s procedural rules without authority from the council in accordance with RCW 35A.12.120, RCW 42.30.240, and LMC 2.04.010.C.

Rule 1.A of the adopted Rules and Procedures allows a suspension of rules by the council during a meeting and Rule 14.C simply states the sequence of public comments: “persons signing-in attending the meeting in person or raising their hand in a virtual meeting format will be recognized and given the opportunity to speak, followed by those who seek recognition from the audience.”

The Lynnwood Times investigation also found that the Lynnwood City Council failed to vote on suspending its rules regarding public comment at its December 11 meeting which would have provided a legal pathway to restricting remote public comment in lieu of violating its own policies and multiple state laws.

Also, at no point before or during the December 11 meeting that a public emergency was declared by the mayor. If a situation constitutes an emergency, according to state law, the mayor has the authority to change public comment rules without the approval of the city council.

Several council members have informed the Lynnwood Times that they will be addressing the possible legal quagmire the City now finds itself in; and aim to discuss the matter of remote public comments at its first Business Meeting on January 8, 2024.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Article updated to correct the original last meeting date for 2023 as December 11 from December 18. Also, the first business meeting for January 2024 was corrected as January 8 not 15. (3:12 p.m., January 1, 2024.)

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