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Study sessions need to be more public
This past week a small group of us from Bremerton took an excursion up to Poulsbo to attend one of the city council meetings.
There are times when viewing how another organization works or operates adds perspective or offers possible solutions to the frustrations being experienced by citizens with their own governing organization.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Poulsbo City Council and Mayor Becky Erickson for the warm welcome, highly educational discussions and professionally run meeting.
A frustration that many in Bremerton experience is the inability to fully access the meetings, mostly council study sessions, which are held in the city council conference room on the sixth floor of the Norm Dicks building in downtown.
Study sessions are technically public meetings and are defined in the City Municipal Code as, “study sessions of the city council shall be held on the second and fourth Wednesday of each month at 5 p.m. at City Hall, or any other place within the corporate limits of the city as provided in the public notice of meeting, to discuss administrative matters and/or to review and discuss items to be considered at future regular business meetings.”
Items from the study sessions are then tabled or moved forward onto the agenda for the upcoming regular business meeting of the council for action to be taken.
Items can appear under the consent agenda, which allows council-members to move blocks of items forward for approval or are then placed under the general business heading where items are discussed and voted on individually.
On three separate occasions last year, I have been unable to access the study session in a manner that allows me to fully see or hear what is being discussed. As a citizen, if I am not able to fully see or hear what is being discussed, I no longer consider that meeting to be open to the public.
If you have not been to the council conference room upstairs it is a rather small room for most activities and way too small for citizen participation at public meetings.
More than 50 percent of the room is taken up by the large council table, council member chairs and support equipment. The back of the room contains around 18 chairs all crammed together.
Because the items or issues being discussed at study sessions frequently need the associated department staff members or directors to be there and be available to answer any questions the council may have, the available chairs in the room are often not enough for staff, let alone any citizen that would like to attend.
When no more chairs are available, extra staff and citizen bodies are forced into the reception area. Even with the door open to the council meeting room it is nearly impossible to hear all of the council members, especially those seated at the opposite end of the room, nor is it at all possible to see any of the support visuals provided for the issues being discussed.
These support visuals are not made available prior to the meeting either. Nor is WiFi access available to citizens on this floor either in the off chance that a review of previously released city documents or code/charter checks through the city’s own website is desired by those attending.
Sure, the opportunity exists to request the audio of the meeting for a fee; however, if one is in actual attendance at an advertised open and public meeting, one should not be required to request, pay for and wait for a copy of the audio for discussions they should have been able to hear and see in the first place.
It is past time for the Bremerton City Council to open up these study sessions by scheduling them for the main council chambers. They are the main council chambers for a specific reason and city council business should have precedence over the scheduling of any other activities for that room. Even better, these study sessions should be fully recorded with video and audio via BKAT instead of just the limited hard to hear audio only recording available at this time.
I keep being told by the city that increased transparency is always a city goal. Okay. Here is a way to open up an obviously bottlenecked portion of the process and prove that you really want to meet this goal for everyone who is watching.