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Island County considers holding public hearings at night

In an effort to comply with Island County code, the commissioners may soon start holding some public hearings during the evening.

Nothing has been decided yet, but the commissioners are also considering moving their regular Monday meetings to Tuesday and holding town-hall-style meetings, also during the evening, either on a monthly or quarterly basis.

The possible changes are the result of brainstorming by the entire board, but Commissioner Kelly Emerson got the ball rolling in early January when she requested board support to hold at least one of its Monday meetings at night. Emerson pushed a similar proposal two years ago, but wasn’t successful in convincing her fellow commissioners at the time.

The idea was to make county government more accessible and encourage participation by offering flexibility for public comment.

“We really don’t have any time when anybody can come down after work hours and comment,” Emerson said.

Evening meetings are occasionally held for special issues but the board’s regular Monday and Wednesday meetings are all held between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. during the week.

Aside from the Port of Coupeville, it is the only government organization on Whidbey Island that holds its primary business meetings during the day. Oak Harbor, Coupeville and Langley, the three school districts, the three fire districts, the Port of South Whidbey and the two parks districts all have their meetings in the evening.

Although Emerson’s proposal did not move forward in January, it was tabled and the suggestion got more traction at a work session last week. Commissioner Jill Johnson said she was a “fan” of the idea but questioned whether the Monday meeting was the best choice.

“I’m not saying no because I like the evening concept,” Johnson said.

As the more formal of the board’s two regular meetings, Mondays are the time when the commissioners vote on the day-to-day administrative minutia needed to keep county government functioning.

Most of it is approved all at once in a consent agenda and isn’t typically what the public is interested in, she said. Johnson suggested a quarterly town-hall-type meeting might better achieve the goal of public participation.

Commissioner Price Johnson, the current chair of the board, expressed similar sentiments.

“I’m not opposed to evening meetings either, but I don’t know that we need them every month,” Price Johnson said.

She noted that all of the board’s meetings are either videotaped or recorded and put online for public review. Also, she said the public actively uses email to communicate with individual commissioners.

County code does have some requirements concerning public hearings. When possible, they are to be held on the fourth Monday of the month at 6 p.m.

“It’s not something we practice,” Emerson said.

A public hearing is different from a public meeting. Required by law, it’s the formal time set aside for public comment on an issue prior to action by a decision-making body. Comments provided become part of the legal record.

While there are cases of timeliness when it’s not possible to have a public hearing at the end of the month, there was consensus of the board that the code should followed more closely.

Less clear was whether doing so would meet Emerson’s request or if the board will also pursue town hall meetings. Moving the Monday meeting to Tuesday was also undecided as it may have unseen impacts on the work flow of county departments.

Both issues are to be discussed again at a work session this week. If the board moves ahead, especially with moving its regular meetings to Tuesday, Price Johnson said it would be a big shift in the way business is conducted. It would likely take time to implement, she said.

“You don’t make those kind of changes quickly to county government,” she said.

 

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