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Philomath City Hall (File photo by Brad Fuqua/Philomath News)

The Philomath City Council reviewed its public meeting participation options during its Nov. 9 meeting and in the end, decided for the most part to continue with its current format.

The one area where there will be a change? No more public comments on the video feed that the city posts on its Facebook page. However, councilors did not arrive at the decision easily with the proposed change passing by a slim 4-3 vote.

The council debated the matter over a 41-minute stretch of the meeting.

City Attorney Jim Brewer told councilors that they all need to be operating from the same record with the same information. Under normal meeting conditions, community viewpoints funnel in to all councilors through things like emails and letters as well as public meeting testimony. But also, councilors are supposed to disclose any ex-parte contacts they’ve had on particular issues.

“That’s most important in the quasi-judicial hearing world, but I think out of fairness to everyone on the council, it’s nice for people to all be operating from that same ground state that we all have the same information,” Brewer said.

With the Facebook comments, public officials sitting in a meeting with their laptops open could potentially be reading the thread. That situation goes beyond what would occur at an in-person meeting. For example, people normally wouldn’t just blurt out their points of view — which could be likened as the in-person meeting equivalent of social media comments.

Brewer said another issue involves the record of council proceedings and that it would need to capture both what was said at the meeting as well as what folks shared on the city’s official Facebook page.

Councilor Chas Jones believes the public sees value in the Facebook video feeds.

“It provides a great opportunity for the public to actually listen and attend our meetings afterward,” Jones said. “I know that I’ve used it to go back and watch meetings after they’ve happened. I think the residents believe it’s really increased their accessibility to the city.”

Councilor Doug Edmonds believes virtual meetings should be conducted in a way that’s as close as possible to in-person meetings.

“During the course of the meeting when we’re sitting at the dais, we’re not having a side-channel chat with anybody in the room; we’re focused on the business of the city and we take care of business,” Edmonds said. “So I think the closer we can emulate that environment the better.”

Councilor Ruth Causey advocated for continuing with the then-current system, which included keeping Facebook commenting intact to “open the doors for citizens to comment.”

Under current pandemic conditions, the city could be faced with several more months of virtual meetings and even if the in-person meetings did start up again, there would likely be social distancing protocols in place that would limit the number of people in the room.

“I don’t see a reason to not have people in the Zoom meeting,” Councilor Matt Lehman said, adding that attendees would need to follow meeting decorum. “If we want to continue to broadcast on Facebook, that seems like a place where a certain number of our citizens gather to discuss what we’re talking about in real time. I don’t see a problem with that.”

Lehman said councilors would just need to make a pledge to not read the comments during a meeting.

“I just don’t think this is as big of a deal as maybe we’re making it out to be,” Lehman said. “Open up the doors, let people in and if it becomes a problem, then we can address the problem when it comes up.”

Lehman also said he doesn’t see why any Facebook comments would need to be included in the minutes.

“I think if the chatter happens on Facebook and it’s not part of our meeting, then it’s the same as gathering down at the Meet’n Place and talking about the City Council meeting,” he said. “We don’t record that either.”

However, City Manager Chris Workman said an important distinction to make is that online comments are appearing on the city’s official Facebook page.

Facebook comments have seemingly not been a problem. If any inappropriate comments had been posted, city staff would’ve needed to manually remove them but Workman could not recall any situations when that occurred. City Recorder Ruth Post added that comments are never edited.

Since there is not a way to actually disable Facebook comments on the platform, city staff will need to delete any. The city has posted in the past a message to viewers on Facebook videos that reads, “The public meeting is being broadcast live. Participants are not monitoring written comments provided on Facebook during the meeting.”

The city of Philomath has the following guidelines in place for its public meetings:
• Meetings are held virtually through the Zoom platform.
• Zoom attendees are limited to regular participants (councilors, commissioners, committee members, board members, city staff) along with guests on the agenda and individuals that had signed up to speak under the visitors and petitions portion of the meeting.
• The city live-streams the meeting on its Facebook page, which is public and accessible to anyone with an internet connection.
• As indicated, the public can sign up to speak under visitors and petitions and join the Zoom meeting during that agenda item.
• The public can provide written comments prior to the start of the meeting for distribution to the participants.
• Facebook chat will be disabled to avoid ex-parte contact and to meet public meeting rules.
• The public can make arrangements to watch the meeting via Facebook at City Hall.
• The public can make arrangements to call in by phone and listen to the meeting.

Besides the Facebook discussion, the issue of whether or not the public should be allowed to join the Zoom meeting was also a topic. Jones had brought up his concerns in a past meeting with a perspective that public participation was more limited than necessary and suggested that anyone be able to attend via Zoom.

Early on in the Nov. 9 meeting, Jones expressed disappointment that his suggested model did not appear with other options or in a list of pros and cons that city staff had included in the evening’s agenda packet.

The action applies to all city meetings, not just the council.

Mayor Eric Niemann asked Jones if he could re-state his proposal, which led to his views on the process.

“In terms of process, when I bring things forward verbally, it tends to fall pretty flat,” Jones said. “But when it’s on paper, I think it has much more impact. So I hesitate to move forward tonight without having that actually included in this memo, and then also considered under the pros and cons.”

Jones’s suggested model included an option for the public to attend through the Zoom call and be allowed to have their video on, but with their microphones muted unless called upon. The city had previously offered that option but concerns had surfaced following a committee meeting in the early spring when inappropriate behavior occurred.

Workman later apologized to Jones for not including his specific model with an intent to only provide a variety of options. Jones said he’s seen a trend during his council tenure that any verbal, suggested changes to city staff options are not taken as seriously.

On the final vote, Niemann, Edmonds, Matthew Thomas and David Low voted in favor of the plan with no Facebook comments. Lehman, Causey and Jones voted nay.

Following is a list of votes taken by the Philomath City Council at its Nov. 9 meeting:
• To approve a consent agenda that included the Oct. 12 City Council minutes and Oct. 19 City Council work session notes. Motion: Edmonds. Seconded: Low. Vote: Passes 6-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Low, Niemann; Absent—Thomas).
• To move the issue of missing sidewalks on Neabeack Hill Drive to the Public Works Committee. Motion: Lehman. Seconded: Edmonds. Vote: Passes 6-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Niemann, Thomas; Abstains—Low).
• To approve an updated plan for public meeting participation. Motion: Thomas. Seconded: Edmonds. Vote: Passes 4-3 (Yes—Edmonds, Low, Niemann, Thomas; No—Causey, Jones, Lehman).
• To approve the scope and budget for the Park Master Plan Update with MIG and direct the city manager to execute and contract with MIG for these services. Motion: Edmonds. Seconded: Low. Vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Low, Niemann, Thomas).
• To approve the request to recognize the Philomath News produced by Brad Fuqua and amend Policy 15-01, Section 1, to replace “Philomath Express” with “Philomath News” with the condition that if the Philomath News falls under new ownership, the council will re-evaluate. Motion: Edmonds. Seconded: Causey. Vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Low, Niemann, Thomas).
• To schedule a public hearing for the Dec. 14, 2020, City Council meeting to receive public testimony regarding a proposed building permit program fee increase. Motion: Lehman. Seconded: Edmonds. Vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Low, Niemann, Thomas).
• To approve Resolution 20-16 establishing a water reimbursement district and to approve Resolution 20-17 establishing a sewer reimbursement district in response to applications received from The Boulevard Apartments. Motion: Edmonds. Seconded: Lehman. Vote: Passes 5-1 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Lehman, Low, Niemann; No—Jones; Abstains—Thomas).
• To approve Resolution 20-18 appropriating excess expenditures. Motion: Edmonds. Seconded: Causey. Vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Low, Niemann, Thomas).
• To have the city attorney and Planning Commission liaison Ruth Causey craft a letter for review and approval for the City Council to address the website created by the Planning Commission and its use associated with Planning Commission roles. Motion: Causey. Seconded: Edmonds. Vote: Passes 7-0 (Yes—Causey, Edmonds, Jones, Lehman, Low, Niemann, Thomas).
• To remove Joseph Sullivan as the chair of the Planning Commission and the Planning Commission entirely. Motion: Thomas. Seconded: None. Vote: None (motion fails).