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Potential change to meeting frequency causing stir

An idea by the City Council to reduce the frequency of council meetings to every other week, with extended Committee of the Whole meetings during the off-weeks, has raised the ire of citizens even before the council has had a chance to discuss it.

Several citizens, especially those who felt the City Council was not listening during the library discussions, have come out against the idea on the grounds that they believe it will lead to a reduction in the the council’s public comment period.

New council president Don Persson said the idea to change meeting frequency has circulated behind-the-scenes among council members for several years and he said he felt because of that, the council should have an official discussion about the prospect.

“I want to try going biweekly,” Persson said this week.

Persson also said he felt the Committee of the Whole discussions, which would take place in the off-weeks, as opposed to prior to the weekly Monday night meeting, could be “more meaty,” especially if public comment was allowed during those meetings.

“We’re not trying to not have public comment,” he said.

Outgoing council president Randy Corman said he was “still forming an opinion” but echoed Persson’s views that a public comment period during the Committee of the Whole could increase citizen participation.

“I don’t really think we would be reducing the opportunity for public comment,” he said, adding that if done right, the change could lead to more comments at “more appropriate times in the process.”

Corman said much of the discussion on any issue happens at the committee levels and by the time it reaches a full council meeting, when citizens have a chance to comment, the process is already so far along that it is difficult to change directions, leading to citizens thinking their comments are not being heard.

“The Committee of the Whole discusses a project a lot earlier in its life, generally,” Corman said.

Councilman Ed Prince said he was not totally convinced on the change but said Renton is the only city outside of Seattle that conducts council meetings every week. Most other cities conduct full meetings every other week, with workshop or study sessions in the other weeks.

“I’m a bit on the fence,” he said, adding that since their system is not necessarily broken, there was no need to fix it. “It’s good for people to be able to see us doing their business on TV every week.”

But Prince said he was willing to listen to what other cities are doing and to his fellow council members.

Councilwoman Marcie Palmer said she is opposed to a change in frequency, partially because of the backlash it has already raised among many of the regular attendees at meetings.

“We’re coming out of a time where a lot of citizens haven’t felt they can trust City Hall,” she said, citing the library discussions of the past few years. “This has just thrown everyone into a tizzy.

“I think it’s bad timing,” she said, citing a “gut feeling.”

Palmer also said she has received many phone calls from constituents on the issue.

Though the first actual discussion of changing meeting frequency is part of a marathon Committee of the Whole meeting scheduled for Monday, word of the plan began leaking out late last year, prompting several citizens to take to the podium to let the council know that they did not support the change.

Activist and former council candidate Stuart Avery was among the seven speakers on the topic during the council’s Dec. 9 meeting. Avery this week reiterated his view that any changes to the meeting schedule should be to the benefit of the citizens.

“The city has failed to provide the public with any valid reasoning for how this would benefit the taxpayers,” he said. “Infrequent meetings don’t benefit the public.”

Addressing concerns about access to council members, Persson said he has received multiple emails and calls at home from constituents, including about this issue and said he and his fellow council members are all available through email as well as the telephone.

“If that’s not access, I don’t know what is,” he said.

“It’s a good discussion to have,” he concluded. “And where would we be if people weren’t willing to try something?”

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