For over two years, Bellingham City Council meetings have been conducted remotely, following the breakout of the COVID-19 pandemic.
In each of their meetings over the last three months, the council has begun revisiting the idea of returning to chambers but has been hesitant to make a decision, citing public health concerns.
In their most recent meeting on May 25, the council voted 5-1 in favor of continuing remote meetings for another month, with Councilmember Michael Lilliquist voting against.
Members of the public are concerned that a completely remote option on Zoom shields council members from accountability and decreases the accessibility of the meetings because of the technological hurdle.
“The issue of accountability has nothing to do with how we meet,” Councilmember Edwin ‘Skip’ Williams said. “With our current COVID numbers in Whatcom County going up, that was the main driver for us to stay remote.”
Markis Dee, the civic engagement director for Serenity Outreach Services, has found that remote city council meetings disproportionately affect the people that he serves.
As an advocate for the homeless, facilitating conversations with governmental officials is very important to his work.
“Many of my clients are suffering from the inability to communicate at a time when the council has expressed an interest in hearing from that demographic,” Dee said.
In accordance with the Open Public Meetings Act, meetings must be conducted in a hybrid or in-person modality, effective June 9.
“It is the policy of the state that a governing body’s actions, including deliberations, shall be taken and conducted in the open. When the public cannot observe and participate in person, it may limit participation in democracy,” the act reads.
The council is relying on a caveat to allow them to continue completely remote meetings. The council may proceed remotely only in the case of a national, state or local declaration of emergency, where the body rationalizes it can not hold a meeting with public attendance with reasonable safety.
Whatcom County Council has returned to chambers in a hybrid modality. Dee said that participation in the council has grown exponentially since.
“It’s a breath of fresh air,” he said.
Without in-person meetings or public comment during meetings, both council members and members of the public are kept away from concerns.
“Just as important is the opportunity for your fellow citizens to see the efforts that you are making publicly,” Dee said.
The city council will return to the question of in-person meetings on June 27.
Jenelle Baumbach (she/her) is a city news reporter at The Front. She studies political science and news/editorial journalism.
You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.