City Council tables public meeting procedure issue

The Philomath City Council tabled a discussion on public meeting procedures with several viewpoints on the issue aired during its Jan. 11 meeting.

The city’s current practice is to meet virtually through Zoom with only those participating allowed in “the room.” Those who sign up to speak during public comments are given access to the Zoom meeting.

The general public can watch the meetings live on the city of Philomath’s Facebook page, or can go back and watch the recording at a later time.

The previous council in a Nov. 9 meeting decided on a 4-3 vote to disable or delete comments on the Facebook video feed.

“This was something important to me that I wanted to bring back before this council in looking at opportunities for public participation in meetings as we are in a virtual world,” Mayor Chas Jones said leading into the discussion.

Early in the pandemic, the city’s Zoom meetings allowed access to anyone. A few issues, such as attendees’ use of video and spats of inappropriate behavior, created distractions within the virtual environment.

Keeping citizens involved in the public process during the pandemic has been an important issue to Jones.

“We really haven’t had any public input, which is very abnormal for the city of Philomath,” Jones said June 8 after the Zoom meetings had been running for a few months. “I think it’s worth us thinking about how to get the public more involved again.”

The 30-minute discussion included a variety of viewpoints on the matter. Councilor Ruth Causey advocated for again allowing Facebook comments on the video posts.

“I think they’re helpful and there’s no indication that they had been abused,” Causey said. “I think they can be made with the understanding that we are under no obligation to act on them … I think it’s an important addition.”

Councilor Jessica Andrade favored re-establishing Facebook comments.

“I personally liked being able to have constructive conversations with other community members, learn what they’re thinking about and also be able to voice something …,” Andrade said. “It’s a great way to learn and meet new people, even if that’s not your intent.”

Jones said that he liked the ability to “build community” through such features, including Zoom chat. Jones has led Zoom meetings with scores of people and added that commenters have no expectation that meeting participants would be interacting with them.

Causey and Councilor Catherine Biscoe both pointed to another city close to size in Philomath that reported success using the chat feature in Zoom for public participation. It had been an example of a social media policy provided during recent council training.

Biscoe said she preferred that the public participation issue not be limited to the Finance and Administration Committee — which had been an option — but involve all councilors in a work session.

“I think we all bring different perspectives and strengths and experiences,” she said. “A work session would be my recommendation but I’m definitely in support of a more open and inclusive community-involved forum, no matter what that looks like.”

Councilor Teresa Nielson said she can see how there could be distractions when the City Council is trying to focus on business. For example, if Zoom meetings were accessible to all, people could easily interject a point, the equivalent of someone standing up and interrupting an in-person meeting.

“I don’t know why we would consider a virtual meeting any different than an in-person meeting in regards to interruptions or comments that can be made,” Nielson said. There’s no filter — and not that I’m afraid of what might be said — but I do think we have to maintain impartiality.”

To that point, Nielson said only a certain number of observers participate in social media and there needs to be a balance on input received.

“We have to consider equality and remain impartial because our constituents aren’t just solely on social media forums,” she said. “I worry about us staying unbiased in our decisions if we have that immediate feedback.”

For informational purposes, Councilor Matt Lehman said he went through Facebook comments posted on 10 or so past meetings and found only 10 unique users that had posted comments.

“You can find yourself in a bubble pretty quickly and I’m afraid that can also happen in a social media environment where there’s public comment, then all of a sudden there was consensus among those 10 people and they represent all the citizens of Philomath,” Lehman said. “I’m starting to rethink my previous stance on this issue.”

Andrade said when those “bubble” situations occur, councilors need to take note where those conversations are coming from and treat them as “another way of gathering information.”

Andrade in the past was among people who utilized the city’s Facebook page to communicate with others.

“I’m under the impression that we’re having a lot more engagement on there than we did previously and to be honest, I think more information is always going to better,” Andrade said. “It’s just going to have to be something that we’re aware of and just work through.”

Jones made a motion that city meetings continue to stream on Facebook and that public participation be allowed in Zoom, including the option of turning on and off cameras, with chat disabled. However, he wanted to see comments be allowed on the city’s Facebook page.

Jones’s motion was seconded by Lehman, but it died with no vote with the ensuing discussion taking the issue in a different direction that led to tabling it.

Andrade felt that it could work fine if people chatted among themselves in Zoom if it’s possible that the chat function be disabled for councilors. After the meeting ended, councilors, if they choose, could then access a chat log.

Councilor David Low said he was not in favor of the option to allow cameras to be turned on and off, saying that he personally finds that to be distracting if there are a lot of screens up.

Jones said he believes there is an option for users to “pin” a certain number of screens that would be visible to eliminate that type of distraction.

Ex-parte contact through the reading of comments creates another potential issue. In a land-use hearing, for example, councilors are required to declare ex-parte contact if the topic had been discussed with anyone outside of the meeting.

“Looking at that material, reading those comments, would be ex-parte contact and would need to be declared at the earliest possible opportunity,” City Attorney Jim Brewer said, again using the land-use hearing example. “We’d also need to provide the opportunity for other people to rebut those things.”

A motion by Biscoe and seconded by Andrade to table the matter and take it up again at a future meeting passed on a 6-1 vote (Jones nay).

“I would like to consider all the realms and successes and experiences of other cities,” Nielson said. “I think there’s a lot more to be considered before I would be able to make a decision.”

In other stories out of the Jan. 11 meeting:

• The council scheduled a public hearing for Feb. 8 to receive comments on an application for an alley vacation, located at the southern half of the north-south alley right-of-way between 15th and 16th streets. The applicant, Gentraco Inc., submitted plans for a new wine-tasting room to be located at 1529 Main St., and as part of the site decision, a condition of approval was to apply for the alley vacation and receive approval prior to any building permits being issued.

• The council scheduled a public hearing for April 12 to receive comments on proposed new methodologies for water, sanitary, sewer, transportation and park system development charges. The Public Works Committee reviewed the proposals in October with a public hearing representing the next step in the process.

• The council referred a social media policy discussion to the Finance and Administration Committee. The city has not yet adopted a policy addressing official use of social media.

• Kate Sundstrom, Philomath Community Services executive director, introduced herself to the City Council during the visitors and petitions portion of the meeting.

• The public comments period also included views from four individuals who talked about survivability concerns for small businesses in Philomath.

• The council approved various committee appointments and assignments and approved Causey as council president. See separate story.

• The council approved a resolution with a couple of amendments to continue a state of emergency due to the COVID-19 pandemic as had originally been declared last March. Under that status, the city can request emergency assistance from Benton County.

• The council approved a resolution to appropriate excess expenditures primarily related to building permits. The city needed to add more money in the budget to cover payments to Benton County, which does all plan review and building inspections for the city. The county charges 70% of the revenue that the city collects. The city issued building permits for about 70 new residential housing units from July 1l to Dec. 31, more than anticipated.

• The council approved a resolution to establish 2021 system development charge rates. SDCs are the fees collected by the city to offset costs of public improvements associated with new development.

• Councilors opted to not draft a resolution of its own condemning the events of Jan. 6 at the capitol buildings in Washington, D.C., and Salem but several did express interest in signing a statement crafted and released by Benton County and Linn County officials. See separate story.

• A Downtown Safety and Streetscapes project update that had been planned was postponed until a future meeting because of the late hour.