After setting a new limit on the amount of time city employees can spend on public records request last month, the Snoqualmie City Council threw another curve ball at citizens on Monday, September 9th. By a vote of 4-3 the council passed a policy that will eliminate the live video streaming and recording of the non-agenda item [AKA ‘Open’] public comment period at meetings.
The new policy only applies to the public comments for topics not on meeting agendas. It will still be audio recorded and available the next day on the city website, but the camera will be turned off during this open public comment portion of the meeting going forward. Public comment will still occur.
Councilmember Bryan Holloway brought up the new policy during the Finance and Administration Committee report, saying “PDC (Public Disclosure Commission) informed the city that on occasions where public comment time is abused for campaign purposes, the offense is that of the current elected official, not the candidate who may be making the comments.”
PDC Communication and Outreach Director Kim Bradford said she isn’t aware of any recent contact with the City of Snoqualmie, but said the Holloway’s comments are consistent of advice they give. She added that it is “quite possible” someone from the city communicated with their commission, but that the person wasn’t identified.
At issue are comments made by Snoqualmie City Council Candidate William Donaldson who has been addressing council during public comment time on different issues and then using the footage in campaign videos on his [campaign] website.
State law says: “No elective official nor any employee of his or her office nor any person appointed to or employed by any public office or agency may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign for election of any person to any office or for the promotion of or opposition to any ballot proposition. Facilities of a public office or agency include, but are not limited to, use of stationery, postage, machines, and equipment, use of employees of the office or agency during working hours, vehicles, office space, publications of the office or agency, and clientele lists of persons served by the office or agency.”
According to Kim Bradford, a city could be in violation of the law if the person making public comments identifies themself as a candidate or their campaign – says ‘vote for me’ or other campaigning statements – and the city did not stop candidates from ‘campaigning.’
Councilmember Sean Sundwall commented, “The PDC has been clear that somehow it’s not that person’s problem. It is our problem for allowing to to happen.”
Sundwall said the violation is the city allowing public resources to be used on a campaign website. He said the candidate had continued the practice after being asked to stop. Sundwall said this has forced the council to use the ‘nuclear option.’
Donaldson said, “This matter has been investigated. The PDC has made their position clear. I am not in violation of any campaign finance laws. I have yet to receive a single donation for my campaign and do not rely on the public to produce my videos. The City has waived any copyrights that it would have had by choosing to host its live streams on Google.”
On May 13th, Donaldson did announce his candidacy during public comment period after expressing his views on the potential Snoqualmie Millsite re-development. The announcement was made as the buzzer signaled the end of his time and he did not discuss his campaign any further.
He has subsequently used public comment time to express his viewpoint on other city issues (but has not identified himself as a candidate nor shared information about is campaign) and then edited and created campaign videos. Last month, though, he began using his own camera to record his comments.
According to Bradford, Donaldson can use video footage of his comment on his website as long as there was no violation made during the footage used. She also said incumbents can use council video footage for their campaigns following the same parameters and as long as they weren’t specifically campaigning during the meeting being recorded.
Also factoring into the council’s decision were assertions that some residents are using public comment time for ‘grandstanding,’ rehashing past decisions repeatedly, and ‘expounding inaccuracies.’
Councilmember Mayhew said the purpose of the public comment period is for topics not on the agenda is for councilmembers to hear what is on residents’ minds – ‘not come in and grandstand for our cameras.’ He added, “It’s about us communicating with our residents”
Councilmember Shepard was almost defiant in her opposition, saying, “I think it’s ridiculous that we would cut off recording.” She added that she didn’t feel there was ever a [campaign] abuse made and felt the meeting recordings have been appreciated by the public. She called the proposal “nothing short of censorship.”
Councilmember Ross said she was ok with not broadcasting the public comment and noted a recent email from MRSC (Municipal Research and Services Center) stating the purpose of public comment time is simply for members of the public to inform council of their views.
Ross commented, “We are not required to live stream the public comment, but we do want to hear the public comment.”
Councilmembers Laase and Jeans said they could not support the policy. Jeans suggested staying with the current system of letting the mayor cut people off who don’t follow the rules.
Regarding the decision, Councilmember Mayhew provided a statement, “Council meetings are for conducting Council business. Meetings are open to the public, recordings are made and available publicly, and we live stream full Council meetings. We take public comment on every bill before acting on it. We also take public comment on matters not on our agenda to ensure councilmembers know resident concerns. Recently some have misused that portion of our meeting, provide false visuals to the camera, make false statements to the camera, cause the city to record video for the purpose of a candidate’s campaign website and social media posts, and other activities that aren’t sharing of resident concerns To remove the incentive for misuse, we decided to turn off the video for this portion of our meeting. It will still be audio recorded and made publicly available the next day, just like the video recording of the rest of the meeting. The public can still comment as before, no censorship or limitation on speaking is being introduced, but hopefully the misuse of this time will stop.”
Donaldson said, “If the City’s position is that my actions are unlawful, then in my view, their top priority should be to get the Public Disclosure Commission to first enforce the appropriate policies on the State’s highest office first…Last night, they voted to censor public comments from our city council live stream. This shows you where their priorities lie.”