The Bellingham City Council has begun holding sessions for public comment every other Monday through Zoom. These sessions come as a solution for hearing the public’s concerns without interfering with the regular City Council’s broadcasts.
The public comment sessions will be held at 7 p.m. every other Monday.
According to the announcement, advance registration is not required to join a session. You can sign in to meetings by visiting this link. Participants will be given three minutes each to speak to the council. According to the Bellingham City news release, Council President Hannah Stone will attend every session and will be joined by two other additional councilmembers on a rotating basis.
Stone encourages students to reach out to the councilmembers not only through the comment sessions but also through email and the EngageBellingham website. This way the councilmembers will have further opportunities to review, respond and view community engagement with public comments.
These public comment sessions will not be recorded, broadcasted or replayed like standard council meetings. This was in order to promote an environment where speakers are talking directly to the councilmembers and to sidestep YouTube’s rules against the misinformation being included in recordings. Previously, speakers would use their speaking time to not only address the council but the community at large given that the comments would be broadcasted for anyone to watch.
Stone proposed these new sessions designated for public comment. She acknowledged that the previous system of public comment wasn’t efficient for hearing a wide variety of voices while giving the council time to complete its regular duties.
Stone wants to improve communication and engagement between the council and the public. The council plans on evaluating how effective these new sessions are for public engagement at the end of the year. Figuring out how to best listen to the community remotely has been a work-in-progress Stone said.
The previous public comment method only allocated 15 minutes per session, limiting speakers to just three minutes each. The 15-minute limit came as a result of comment periods extending up to an hour or more, which would impede upon the council’s regular business. The commenting periods became ineffective with the very constrained time and returning speakers, diminishing the variety of voices heard by the council.
Additionally, the City Council sessions are recorded and posted on the city's youtube channel for citizens to watch if they are unable to make the live broadcast. YouTube has begun banning all content that spreads vaccine misinformation, as reported by NPR.
The ban on misinformation resulted in YouTube flagging and taking down recorded City Council sessions due to vaccine misinformation during public comment periods, Stone said.
This led the City Council to suspend public comment sessions during regular City Council meetings in an effort to keep them uploaded to YouTube for public consumption.
“I hope that students up on campus or people connected with the university will take the opportunity to engage in one form or another,” Stone said.
Stone encourages students to attend public comment sessions. Ideally, speakers should be very clear about their request from the council and what they’re hoping to see as far as solutions, changes or proposals, Stone said.
“As a neighborhood leader, and an advocate for various efforts across the city as a volunteer in the past, I found great benefit coming to city council chambers and having my three minutes to highlight a concern or effort to city council,” Lisa Anderson, a Bellingham City councilmember, said.
Anderson said many changes do come as a result of citizens bringing issues to the attention of councilmembers.
“I encourage people to take up issues and bring them to us, because sometimes we don't know that there's an issue until they do,” Anderson said.
Bellingham resident Veronica Vincent was one of the public comment session participants who spoke in support of a hazard pay ordinance for grocery store workers back in the spring. The Bellingham City Council passed the ordinance a month or so later, as reported by The Front.
Vincent said she was told that a few councilmembers were moved by the speech she gave during her public comment period and it influenced the ordinance being passed.
“There were a few people who made a real critical impact,” Vincent said.
Vincent encourages people to talk to the City Council if they have issues the council could potentially solve.
“If you’re passionate about something you should at least try,” she said.
According to Vincent, you should do your research on what the council is capable of and what kind of solution you want for your issue.
“Go for it,” she said, “but be organized and make a point because you don’t have a lot of time to make that point.”