Council urged to embrace dialogue

Public comment periods should allow for two-way conversation, residents say

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Camas City Council members Ellen Burton (left), Melissa Smith (second from left) and Shannon Roberts (right) listen to citizen comments with Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell at a December 2019 city council meeting. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Camas City Council members are taking a closer look at how they and the mayor interact with citizens during twice-monthly council workshops and meetings.

The subject came up at a Feb. 3 Camas City Council workshop, which included a draft resolution that could revamp the rules for conduct at council meetings and workshops.

Before the workshop, two Camas residents spoke in favor of opening “two-way conversations” between residents and elected officials during the Council’s public comments period.

Scott Hogg, the man who led the charge against a November 2019 ballot proposition asking voters to approve up to $78 million to build a public community-aquatics center and upgrade several area sports fields, said he was submitting a proposal “on behalf of a large group of neighbors” that would expand the Council’s public comment period to a 30-minute session at each workshop and meeting, and ask council members and the mayor to interact with citizens making public comments.

The plan would still limit speakers to no more than three minutes each, but would “allow for regular and customary two-way exchange between the councilors and the people they represent,” Hogg said.

John Ley, another Camas resident who frequently speaks during the Camas Council’s public comment period, also asked city leaders to allow for “two-way conversations when it comes to citizens sharing information.”

Under the draft resolution being considered by Council members, speakers would continue to have three minutes to speak but would need to direct their comments to the chair of the meeting, likely Mayor Barry McDonnell or a mayor pro tem.

A newly added section states that the meeting chair would acknowledge the speakers “and, if appropriate, indicate whether further steps are to be taken regarding the topic(s) presented.”

The current rules for Council meetings and public comment periods state that “speakers shall not engage Council, staff, (the mayor) or other audience members in conversation, debate or question-and-answer session.”

The draft resolution does not change that rule and would not allow for the type of “two-way conversation” being championed by Hogg and Ley.

After being asked by newer Council members to weigh in on the history of the city’s public comments period, longtime Councilman and former Camas Police Chief Don Chaney said the current rules, which limit “two-way conversations” between elected officials and members of the public during Council workshops and meetings, came into effect after a series of personal attacks.

“Years and years ago it wasn’t like that,” Chaney said of the current rules. “Folks could come in from the public and … could attack a council member personally. We had a council member who was attacked by a citizen on a personal level, and I think that’s why, originally, this became (the rule).”

Chaney added that the old rules, which allowed for more back-and-forth dialogue between citizens and councilors, had a tendency to throw city meetings “off track.”

“You lose the structure and the purpose of the meetings,” Chaney said.

Greg Anderson, the longest serving councilmember, said he remembered the personal attacks and added that, sometimes, citizens directed their questions toward councilors who might not know a lot about a certain issue or be the best spokesperson for that particular subject.

“There’s open and good communication and then there’s just a potential to go down bunny holes,” Anderson said. “Bunny holes are not fun when you’re trying to get decisions and work done.”

Chaney added that it was typical for the mayor of the city to respond to citizens who were speaking during the public comment period.

“When there’s a sense that somebody is in need of a reply (the mayor) did that or referred them to an appropriate staff member,” Chaney said. “It really does fall on the mayor. Generally, the mayor is broadly versed on everything we do here.”

Councilwoman Ellen Burton said she believed it was very important for citizens to feel heard, but questioned if Council workshops, which are designed for councilmembers to engage with staff and the mayor about upcoming agenda items, are the proper place for that type of back-and-forth conversation.

“We want every individual to feel heard,” Burton said. “But I’m guessing it’s sort of a continuum … We’re trying to work it so it stays within some boundaries and expectations on both sides.”

McDonnell said he believes citizens don’t feel heard when they come before the Council.

“It’s an intimidating process to even come up and talk before the group. I do think that we need to be able to answer questions in a public format. (I) think that is important and understand that we need to manage meetings and have to have some consistency and some clarity, and I think that’s a great conversation to have,” McDonnell said.

Councilwoman Bonnie Carter added that she thought the mayor or mayor pro-tem, whoever was running the meeting, should be the one to interact with citizens.

“It would be inappropriate for me to interject into that portion (of the meeting) when it should either be answered or not answered by the mayor,” Carter said. “In my opinion, (it’s OK) if it’s a quick, “Yes, we can do that,” or, “Thank you, I’d like to direct you to a staff member,” but not to have a back-and-forth conversation for such a long period of time. It becomes awkward and detracts from the rest of the meeting.”

The Council plans to discuss the issue and possibly vote on the draft resolution in March.