Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Twisp Town Council has met virtually, giving residents a chance to call in by phone or follow along on their computer.
The meetings run much like they did before, except they don’t allow for a person to make unscripted public comments in their own voice.
Instead, people are invited to submit written comments that mayor Soo Ing-Moody then reads. Recently, the council limited written comments to one page to save time.
At the council’s Tuesday (Oct. 12) meeting, the council discussed changing that policy to allow people on the phone or their computers to comment in real time.
“It’s probably a really good time to get us all talking about virtual meetings,” Ing-Moody said, noting that councilmember Mark Easton asked for the item to be placed on the agenda. “We certainly hadn’t expected for us to be in this position, necessarily, this long when we first embarked on this virtual journey, but as you all know we still are … in a pandemic and we still are going through ups and downs.”
Easton asked if there was any reason a resident couldn’t do public comment virtually — identifying themselves and keeping to a time limit as they would during an in-person meeting. He suggested the council could maintain the write-in option for anyone who was unable to join the meeting virtually, or who was uncomfortable doing so.
Ing-Moody noted that at the beginning of the pandemic, many people were less comfortable with virtual meeting software than they are now. She suggested the town research Zoom protocols and parliamentary procedures developed specifically for virtual public meetings.
The mayor noted that while governments are required to have public meetings by state law, they are not required to take public comment. Town councils most often do allow a portion of time for public comment from residents, and most limit it to a few minutes.
Ing-Moody expressed some concern about how a person would sign in for public comment for a virtual meeting, and how the council could verify that person is who they say they are.
“No one makes public comment anonymous[ly],” she said. “I think that as long as we can establish that full transparency for our participants who are wishing to provide that public comment … I think we could certainly do it. It’s up to you how you as a council would like to conduct your meetings.
Councilmember Aaron Studen said he didn’t believe signing in would be an issue, because city clerk Randy Kilmer would have to unmute a person before they can comment. He spoke in favor of allowing the public input.
“I do think having a person give a public comment in their own words, in their own voice, is definitely more effective than having the mayor read it,” he said.
Other government organizations allow public comment during virtual meetings. Easton suggested the council could research what they have done.
The subject will be back on the agenda in a future meeting.
Studen also asked that Ing-Moody change the way she calls for votes in virtual meetings, possibly calling on each voting member in turn, to make sure all members are heard despite possibly glitchy internet or sound quality.
“One of the things we need to talk about is getting a firm affirmation and vote from each councilmember, whether you can see them raising a hand on the screen or hear them speaking and not just assume it’s unanimous if we hear no ‘nays,’ ” he said.
Easton said he agreed with Studen’s request. Ing-Moody immediately started calling on individual councilmembers to get their vote after the discussion.
Council approves contract for audio-visual system
In other business, the council also approved a $234,003 contract with Spokane-based Avidex to install an audio-visual system throughout the still-under-construction Twisp Civic Center.
The contract includes installing systems in the council chambers and emergency operations center (EOC) room including two 85-inch commercial displays mounted behind the council, four 75-inch displays on the side walls and small 22-inch displays at each councilmember’s seat.
The system will include two cameras for capturing the room for teleconferences and the camera feeds can be controlled by touchscreen at the clerk’s position in the meeting room.
Avidex will also install a large display monitor in another meeting room in the civic center to allow for video teleconferencing. An interactive 75-inch whiteboard display will be mounted in a “flex room” and video teleconferencing equipment will be added in the mayor and police chief’s offices. Monitors and displays will also be installed in the city clerk, public works and police offices, and a 75-inch display will be installed in the lobby for overflow viewing.
Public Works Director Andrew Denham told the council Avidex has already coordinated with the engineer in charge of construction of the civic center.
“They’re ready as soon as we get approval and have a contract,” he said.