[Update on 5/25/2022: The Bellingham City Council has wisely decided to remain in remote session until at least the end of June. The vote was 5-1 with Council Member Huthman absent and Council Member Lilliquist voting no. Lilliquist preferred instituting a hybrid model for council meetings, part remote and part in chambers.]
[Update on 3/20/2022: The council decided to move further discussion of a face to face opening until their meeting on April 11th.]
[The following is an updated version of an email I sent to the Bellingham City Council on March 3rd (original version at FILES below). It was sent after the council tentatively agreed on February 28th to return to chambers for its meeting on March 28th.]
Returning council to meeting in-person in council chambers is premature and unnecessarily risky. Not only will it contribute to a likely reversal of the downturn in COVID-19 infections locally, but it also will create, yet again, groups of haves and have-nots: those who are willing to attend in-person and those who cannot out of prudent precaution or conditions making them more susceptible to infections. There is also the risk of dividing the council itself, wherein some members opt, because of health reasons or simple prudence, to remain on-line, while others meet the public directly at City Hall.
What we ought not do is prematurely loosen restrictions that are working to bring infection rates down. This is akin to stopping a 10-day course of antibiotics after five days because you are feeling better; then comes the relapse. I believe the governor has made a grievous error in his recent loosening of restrictions. We ought not compound that error locally. Yes, everyone wants to get back to that nostalgic “normal.” It is, unfortunately, too soon in this instance in which we will turn the council chambers into a virus vector welcome center.
Moreover, a combination of continued on-line sessions mixed with in-person presence in council chambers perpetuates an existing divide we cannot afford. Three years ago, I spoke to the issue of the lack of true dialogue at council. Mixing on-line with in-person sessions will exacerbate the lack of dialogue more than the pandemic already has. I suggest we use this period of transition to re-imagine council meetings, and to deal with several issues I brought forward in my last article. See: Citizen/City Dialogue - A Myth.
Public commenting has already been cut off at council meetings, the meager three minutes that it was. It was a move I opposed at the outset. Several unusually vocal and hostile groups of commenters commandeered and warped the means to provide what little direct contact remained between the public and the council. The planned “town halls” are a very poor substitute, in that many issues brought up during past public comment periods were immediate in nature. In the town halls, questions from the public, (per usual format written on cards,) are gathered and sorted by staff according to some vague criteria: importance, popularity, currency, whimsy? Which is it? I have been to these town hall goat-ropes and have left them feeling angry and frustrated because of the lack of dialogue and follow-up. Issues can’t wait for these gatherings every two or three months.
Finally, there is the question of masks and vaccinations for entry into a council meeting in chambers. The mayor said he (City Hall) does not want to be the vaccine or mask police. I strongly disagree. Public safety demands these verifications prior to entry into the council chambers. Public safety is the job of the mayor. Doing less is bending in fear before the few malcontents who will not comply, or who will make a scene when asked for proof of vaccination. These people should not be in control, especially when our lives depend on it.
As for reconvening in council chambers: hasten slowly.
Comments by Readers
Douglas GustafsonMar 06, 2022
I think they need to do the hybrid option. They need to have in-person, and zoom at the same time. Anybody that shows up in person can be heard, and anybody who can’t make it, or is willing to make it virtually, should be able to do so as well (showing up on the main screen during the meeting).
Dick ConoboyMar 06, 2022
Any option that involves face-to-face meetings at this juncture is premature and risks the health of all involved. One would think that after 2 yrs of this folderol we would have learned something. But let’s try for another year of COVID. 6 million dead worldwide and likely to be a million in the US at some time in the future. Insanity - doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome, eh?
Douglas GustafsonMar 07, 2022
There are people though who don’t have a computer or internet access (such as many who are homeless). Personally I prefer Zoom over in-person meetings, but I think offering all of the above makes the most sense. Sure maybe there’s a slightly higher risk of catching a virus from in-person meetings, but that’s the person’s choice to take the risk I guess. Unless you’re super medically fragile, you have a high chance to survive. But yeah I get how people might think differently about this issue though.
Ralph SchwartzMar 29, 2022
I know the author’s argument is nearly four weeks old now, and his thinking may have changed….
I will point out at this juncture that City of Bellingham is among the very few public entities in Whatcom County that isn’t meeting in-person at this point. Several weeks of face-to-face public meetings in the county has not resulted in a spike in COVID-19 cases so far, and neither will COB meetings. No offense to council members, but they simply aren’t that big of a draw.
With the risk of infection as low as it is now, I think we err on the side of public participation. With Zoom only, council is not providing opportunities for public comment during meetings, outside of formal public hearings.
Dick ConoboyMar 30, 2022
You have made some good points about our present situation but this virus has its own mind. At every turn with this virus we have failed to look more than 10 feet down the road when we should be looking 10 miles down the road.
France recently lifted most mandates including the QR vaccination code which was obligatory for entering restaurants, museums, schools, etc. Yesterday the DAILY COUNT for the entire country was an astounding 217,000+ new cases. Given the population of France, an equivalent number of cases per day in the US would be 1,085,000. Granted, hospitalizations are not yet a problem in France for this wave but given the unpredictability of the virus and the often initially hidden effects on the body, notably the brain, which are not detectable immediately, we are playing with fire for the future. And who is even thinking about budgeting for that? Shades of Agent Orange where they are now finding it has an effect on genes with children of veterans turning up with a variety of maladies. So with COVID. What will be the picture in 50 years?
Spring break just ended. The WWU COVID dashboard will not have had the chance to register post-break infections, however, it could serve as a bellwether. Keep a lookout!
I am anxious and ready for my second booster in April.