Governments looking at option to have elected officials vote from offsite
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — Remote attendance and telework are being used as tools to minimize the spread of COVID-19, the viral illness declared a pandemic last week.
Cities and businesses in the Snohomish County area are using technology and existing practices of telework to connect people remotely, avoiding in-person contact for jobs that can be done off-site. The “social distancing” practice is intended to reduce spread of COVID-19, a novel coronavirus that found its way to Snohomish County last month.
The city of Everett directed all employees with the ability to work from home to do so, wrote Mayor Cassie Franklin, in the city’s newsletter. She said the city is taking that and other steps to reduce exposure for vulnerable populations.
“It’s better that we take bold action early, than to be too late,” Franklin wrote.
The Monroe City Council recently amended its Council Rules of Procedure to allow for remote meeting participation “during periods of a proclaimed emergency,” said city clerk Elizabeth Adkisson.
The city currently uses a telephonic conference call option; and at the direction of Mayor Geoffrey Thomas is currently exploring additional tools for remote meetings to include web-based products such as Skype, Zoom, or other tools, Adkisson said. Council members can both participate and vote during remote meetings.
At a recent City Council meeting, Snohomish City Council President Jason Sanders said the city should develop a contingency plan for remote attendance as a tool for COVID-19, as well as other public emergencies. Council members Judith Kuleta and Donna Ray agreed that a plan for remote attendance was needed.
“We’re in an earthquake-prone area,” Kuleta said, adding that if someone was hurt and “laid up, but still capable of helping govern our city” the council should have a tool to include that person.
“I think it’s important to have a contingency plan,” Ray said. “ ... If four or five fall ill, we have to have some way of communicating. Otherwise, we delay process.”
Sanders asked for input from city attorney Grant Weed, who said the city could write a policy that, if approved, would amend Resolution 1347 of city code. The key concern is assuring people can hear one another. The other limiting factor is that some visual communication is lost with electronic participation.
“Sometimes it’s just not the same as having your constituents right here in the room to see their body language and participate face to face, and eye to eye,” Weed said.
He said many cities that allow remote attendance cap the times-per-year, or the reasons given to participate remotely. At present, what is envisioned and what is available are different, in Snohomish.
Sanders said one of the lessons learned was that the city is not yet fully tooled for remote access.
“We do not have the IT (internet technology) means — phones, WebEx, etc. — yet to hold a ‘remote’ meeting. I would not be surprised to see changes to our contingency planning regarding Council meetings going forward, as we and other cities work through this,” Sanders said.
The health district and other government agencies at the local to federal levels are expanding telework for employees who can still do their job, without on-site attendance. Some municipalities are exploring remote meeting attendance, with the tools they have in place. For special meetings last week, the health district’s full video, originally live streamed, was posted on Facebook for public review.
The ability for attendance while traveling out of state could also be needed in an emergency situation.
Mukilteo was already prepared for remote participation, and has had the option codified into council rules since 2009.
“We usually use just a phone line, but recently purchased one that can conference in multiple calls. We also have set a computer up with GoToMeeting (software) in case we need to have multiple or all members participate remotely,” said Mukilteo Mayor Jennifer Gregerson. “With our rules they can vote, as long as they can hear and speak to participate.”
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