Council votes out of committee some changes to its operating rules

Following up last week’s discussion of some proposed changes to the City Council’s rules and operating procedures, this afternoon in a four-hour marathon session the Council’s governance committee deliberated on fifteen additional amendments and advanced the new rules on to the full Council for final adoption next Monday.

It was a mixed bag: some minor technical amendments, three substantial changes (with two IOUs for future work), and a handful of failed attempts to address well-known annoyances.

Here are the big changes:

  • The weekly Council Briefing is moving from Monday morning to Monday afternoon at 2pm. Also, it will no longer be required for the Council to hold a Council Briefing every week: the Council President will have discretion to cancel it, without jumping through all the hoops of suspending the Council rules to do so.
  • The weekly Full Council meeting is moving from Monday afternoon to Tuesday afternoon at 2pm. This will be a tremendous improvement for the Council’s staff, who often spend their weekends prepping last-minute amendments for Monday afternoon’s bills. Needless to say, the committee schedule and various other deadlines will also get shuffled around.
  • Currently Councilmembers are not allowed to abstain on matters during the full Council meeting; they approved an exception to that rule where now they will be able to abstain on any non-legally-binding resolutions in the full Council meeting that don’t relate to city business (though they are still massaging the final wording of that exception for Monday’s final vote). This was one of several amendments proffered that might be considered a “Sawant rule” so that the Councilmembers don’t have to spend excessive amounts of time learning about, for example, the nuances of India’s internal political fights every time she brings forth a resolution to get the Council to take a political position.

The Council also amended the rules to express their intent to study a larger change proposed by Councilmember Strauss that would switch the Council over to a “legislative session” model similar to the one that the state Legislature uses. Strauss has proposed that rather than have the endless grind of Council Briefing, Full Council, and weekly committee meetings, instead the annual calendar would consist of several sessions that begin with a few weeks of committee meetings followed by a few weeks of “floor sessions” and then a short recess to start working on the next set of bills. One of the issues that this addresses is the lack of time that Councilmembers who are not members of a committee have to get up to speed on a bill before they are asked to take a final vote to approve it in Full Council; the “session model” would still allow for in-depth engagement by committees, but it would also provide the opportunity for all Councilmembers to have more than a rushed, perfunctory role in shaping the final form of a bill. Expect a detailed proposal to be developed by March.

The Councilmembers also debated an amendment that would loosen the rules for electronic participation in Council meetings. Currently the rules on paper are very strict, only allowing electronic participation in specific circumstances such as emergency meetings or when a Councilmember would otherwise be granted family or medical leave (though that rule can and sometimes is suspended). But the strict rules are currently suspended by Governor Inslee’s COVID proclamation, which is why all Council meetings have been fully electronic for a year and a half. But at some point that will end, and the Councilmembers want to have a new set of rules in place that provides more flexibility — in part to recognize what they see as the “new normal” where office workers will sometimes work from home. There are some logistical issues, however, and so while the new proposed rules would allow Councilmembers to decide for themselves when they will participate electronically, in most cases they will need to provide the meeting chair and the Council’s IT department with at least 48 hours’ advance notice. The final text of the amendment is still being polished, so we should expect to see it on Monday as a last-minute amendment before the resolution is adopted.

The Councilmembers are enthusiastic about the change, and it’s easy to understand why the extra flexibility (that so many other workers now enjoy) will help them; it’s less clear, however, whether it will be of benefit to the citizens and residents of Seattle. Today the electronic meeting format allows Councilmembers to muti-task during meetings and read speeches off their screens, neither of which is particularly easy for them to do in Council Chamber; further, when they are physically present in person we can tell whether they are paying attention, whereas in their electronic meetings we can’t see them at all unless they are the active speaker. During public comment session in Council Chambers the Councilmembers are often reading email or texting their staff; and they occasionally get called out for it. But in their electronic meetings we have no idea whether they are paying attention at all. So electronic meetings are a great deal for the Councilmembers: more flexibility, more opportunities to do other things during boring parts of the meetings, more reading speeches and scripts, and less public accountability. The Council’s proposed rule changes preserve all that, without taking any additional steps to increase transparency to the public.  And the transparency and accountability issues extend beyond just meetings when Councilmembers work from home: among other things, it becomes much more difficult to find out who they are meeting with. The Council has a lovely visitor-registration system that logs all visitors to the second floor; it logged 1,250 visitors in the first ten weeks of 2020 before they shutdown happened. Then nothing for the rest of 2020, and only 23 visitors for all of 2021. Without that system, finding out who is lobbying Councilmembers and their staff requires filing public document requests for their calendars and waiting weeks (sometimes months) for a response — and even then rarely provides comprehensive information on who is meeting with them.

This doesn’t mean that Councilmembers and their staff shouldn’t get to work from home sometimes and participate in some meetings electronically rather than in-person; but it does mean that the Council needs to work harder to ensure that doing so doesn’t continue to impoverish the public’s ability to know what their elected officials are doing.

There were four more changes that were considered but ultimately not adopted that attempted to address nagging issues that plague the Council’s meetings:

  • Public comment. Councilmember Strauss proposed changing the rules for which topics are allowed during public comment at the weekly Full Council meetings to match the committee rules, which would have limited comment to items on the agenda for the meeting and prohibited comment, as currently allowed, on any topic on the Council’s annual work plan. The proposal acknowledges the low signal-to-noise ratio of much of public comment sessions, especially the “usual suspects” who rant and make derogatory (often offensive) comments about Councilmembers and other city officials. Council President Gonzalez recalled some of the conversations she has had with the City Attorney’s Office related to what kind of limits could be placed upon public comment sessions without infringing commenters’ First Amendment rights to free speech, and argued that placing more severe limits on topics would likely run afoul; she also pointed out that hearing from the public is part of the Council’s work. Some of the Councilmembers also suggested that enforcement would be difficult; Councilmember Herbold pointed out that the inclusion of anything on the Council’s work plan as an available topic was added specifically to address concerns that chairs were using discretion to choose the kind of speech they wanted to hear.
  • Committee alternates. The rules currently require that an alternate committee member be appointed for each committee, who may only participate and vote if one of the regular committee members is absent, in order to ensure that quorum is reached so business can reliably be conducted. In practice this has turned out to be challenging. Prior to 2020, all Councilmembers could participate and vote in all committees even if they weren’t officially a committee member. The new rules, which restrict participation and voting to committee members, often leave alternates in the dark about whether they will be participating in a committee meeting — and consequently whether they need to study the items on the agenda — until shortly before the meeting. They can waste time preparing for a meeting they likely won’t be joining, or they can risk being called into the meeting unprepared. Councilmember Pedersen proposed doing away with appointing alternates entirely; while there was widespread sympathy among his colleagues for the problems with the alternate system, and some belief that they could potentially get rid of alternates if every committee had at least five members, at the end of the day they weren’t willing to pull the trigger on that change. The updated rules do, however, make appointing an alternate optional, at the discretion of the Council President.
  • Cutting off speechifying. This could perhaps be seen as another “Sawant rule,” since she often will give 15-20 minute speeches during Council meetings (though she is hardly the only long-winded offender). The current version of Robert’s Rules of Order say that a speaker must limit their comments to ten minutes while a motion is pending, and that a speaker may be granted up to two opportunities to speak per day on the motion (for a total of 20 minutes). Strauss proposed cutting that down to five minutes per speaking opportunity. There was a fair amount enthusiasm for the five-minute rule; unfortunately they also acknowledged that it would be difficult to enforce, especially since the Council currently doesn’t have the ability to cut off a speaker’s microphone (Sawant is well known for simply continuing to talk when the chair attempts to cut her off). So without an effective enforcement mechanism, there wasn’t enough support for this to advance it.
  • Rules on who may address the committee during deliberations. One of the things that has been left up to the discretion of committee chairs is who may be present and participate while the Councilmembers are deliberating on a piece of legislation. Some chairs are sticklers for keeping it just to Councilmembers and legislative staff; others have allowed in subject-matter experts from city departments and/or other institutions; and some have invited in activists and representatives from advocacy groups. To be clear, this isn’t a question of whether outside individuals should be allowed to present to a Council committee, but rather whether their presence benefits or impedes deliberations when a bill is being debated and amended. Councilmember Pedersen proposed a strict limit to Councilmembers and legislative staff while a motion is being considered. Some Councilmembers, including Juarez and Mosqueda, opposed it so that they could continue to bring in subject-matter experts and ask questions during deliberations (as Juarez did in her committee meeting yesterday). Herbold, on the other hand, expressed some support for the restriction, saying that she wished there was some way to discourage committee chairs from inviting continued debate from non-committee members — arguing that sometimes “clarifying questions” are just opportunities for an advocate aligned with the chair’s position to restate their position rather than actually provide new information. Gonzalez pointed out that the tighter restriction doesn’t actually solve the problem, because the chair can simply suspend the rule and invite whomever they want to participate. She also suggested that, much like restrictions on public comment, it could be viewed as unfairly targeted at those with opposing views.

The new Council rules come up for final approval — likely with added rules for electronic participation in meetings — Monday afternoon.

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