By Zach Hagadone
Anyone who has kept tabs on the proceedings of the Sandpoint City Council over the past month or so has noticed that the routine business of the city has been pushed from the limelight by jam-packed public forum sessions and impassioned testimony on issues ranging from Second Amendment rights to COVID-19 restrictions to the Black Lives Matter movement and Love Lives Here campaign.
The level of public participation has resulted in would-be meeting attendees sometimes gathering hours before the usual 5:30 p.m. start time to secure a seat in the Council Chambers, limited to about around 25 to ensure COVID-19 social distancing. Meanwhile, overflow crowds have gathered in the City Hall lobby and parking lot. Numbers of those signing up to speak have frequently required two 20-minute public forum sessions at the front and back of the meetings, which have stretched to four hours in some cases.
Simmering beneath the surface of much of the testimony is dissatisfaction felt by some county residents over the direction of the city government on a range of what Council President Shannon Williamson referred to as “some really serious societal issues” currently playing out across the country.
The council at its July 15 meeting addressed how best to facilitate public participation — specifically, taking up the question of whether city residents should be given priority to speak during the forum portion.
City Attorney Andy Doman told the council that while the Idaho Association of Cities has advised that “reasonable sideboards” can and should be put on public forums, Idaho open meeting law stipulates that “all persons are entitled to attend a public meeting. There’s no restrictions that can be put on that.”
Some of those “sideboards” could include keeping a tighter rein on the relevance of public forum testimony, limiting commentary to issues that are squarely before the city, rather than matters that land within the purview of legislative or federal governments.
Councilwoman Deb Ruehle said that “all voices need to be heard but some refinement may be needed.”
Councilman Andy Groat agreed, suggesting that city residents be given priority speaking time at the first 20-minute public forum session, with non-residents being given the second session.
While Ruehle and Williamson expressed some support for Groat’s solution, Doman and City Administrator Jennifer Stapleton cautioned that such a system might result in uneven access.
“You may want to consider keeping your format open so that people can comment not just by a priority system but keep it open so that those folks have the ability to comment during that period,” Doman said. “We need to be careful if that could be construed as denying someone access to the meeting.”
Williamson said “this is a good problem to have,” noting that many county residents own property and operate businesses within city limits, making what transpires at City Hall of great interest to them. Doman said that open meeting law doesn’t even make that distinction: public proceedings are open to anyone, regardless of where they live or do business.
“If you’re going to have a public forum, it needs to be open to the public,” he said.
The council opted not to set any new policies July 15, but indicated it may revisit the issue of streamlining public participation at a future meeting.
The next regular meeting of the City Council is scheduled for Wednesday, July 29, with doors now open at 5 p.m. to accommodate those who work 9-5 jobs and wouldn’t otherwise have the ability to snap up seats ahead of time.
The city live streams its meetings via a Zoom video conferencing platform, accessible at sandpointidaho.gov/your-government/meetings. Click the “City Council” button at the left of the page and fill out the registration form. Video from past meetings of the council and city committees are archived at the city of Sandpoint’s YouTube channel.
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