Late this afternoon, Council President Lorena Gonzalez and Council President Pro Tem Teresa Mosqueda issued a directive to the city’s Legislative Department outlining several measures the department will take to address the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. Topping the list: all department employees are instructed to telecommute through the end of the month, and all committee meetings will be cancelled for the remainder of March.
In addition, the regular Monday afternoon full City Council meetings will be held “remotely, using appropriate technology.” The details of how Council members will participate, and how the public may observe, will be made available in advance of the first remote meeting on Monday afternoon.
The press statement accompanying the directive quotes Mosqueda in explaining the reasoning for the directive:
“As a large employer, the City is taking steps to limit our employees’ and the public’s exposure to the coronavirus, and put into practice recommendations by public health officials. To do our part to slow the spread of coronavirus, while ensuring City business continues to get done, the City’s Legislative Department is advising its employees to telecommute from home. In order to maintain legislative operations, Full Council meetings will still occur but by telephone, and will be made accessible to the public in accordance to law,” Mosqueda said.
The City Charter requires the Council to establish its meeting times and locations by rule, and the Council has done that. The Council’s Rules say that the regular meetings are at 2pm on Mondays in Council Chambers (unless Monday is a holiday, in which case it meets on the next consecutive business day). However, both the City Charter and the Council Rules allow for the meeting to be in another location in the case of an emergency — which the Mayor declared this week. Remote meetings are still subject to the Open Public Meetings Act, which means that members of the public must be able to attend and the minutes of the meetings must still be recorded and made public.
There is certainly plenty of precedent for individual Council members participating and voting in Council meetings remotely; up until the most recent update to the Council rules last December that required explicit approval by the Council for each instance, but now there is tacit approval for it in the rules.
Technically the state law, the City Charter, and the Council Rules all require a “location” or “meeting site” for a Council meeting, so a crafty lawyer might be able to argue that a fully online Council meeting that doesn’t have a physical location is illegal. Given the circumstances, however, I wouldn’t expect anyone to put up a fight over it — so long as the Council doesn’t try to pass any particularly controversial legislation in the next three weeks. And the likelihood of that is low, given that all of the regular committee meetings are now cancelled: it would be difficult to push any major legislation through to the finish line without at least one committee hearing.
The directive leaves room for special meetings of committees to be scheduled “that are essential for action on critical, time-sensitive legislation.” It specifically calls out as an example of such a meeting to develop legislation renewing the Seattle Transportation District levy, which would need to by completed by May. All special committee meetings will also be held remotely, according to the directive.
Much of the directive attends to HR matters, including specifying the rules that apply to overtime-eligible Legislative Department employees for tracking their hours so that they can continue to get paid in March:
Overtime-eligible employees who are assigned to work remotely must be available by phone or email during the hours of your normal work schedule to perform job tasks assigned by your supervisor, except during rest and meal breaks.
All overtime-eligible employees while working remotely will continue to remain available and subject to the direction of their supervisor, even during times when waiting for an assignment. Time spent away from your remote work area for purposes other than rest or meal breaks (e.g. appointments, errands, etc.) should be recorded as leave time unless otherwise arranged with your supervisor. Overtime-eligible employees are not permitted to work more than 40 hours per week unless you have obtained written approval from your supervisor in advance.
March is now shaping up to be quiet; Monday’s Introduction and Referral Calendar only has one item: paying the weekly bills. On the other hand, that may lead to an exceptionally busy April when everyone returns to the office (hopefully).
Remember to wash your hands often, practice appropriate social distancing, and call your doctor if you develop flu-like symptoms. Also remember to continue to patronize local businesses — including restaurants — so that we can keep them all in business through this difficult time.
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