In-person vs. virtual meetings at heart of disagreement between council member, mayor
What started as a discussion at a city council study session escalated with an erroneous email from city staff to members of the city’s boards and commissions. It then spilled over into public view with a dispute between Mayor Tracie Markley and Councilwoman Jeni Woock.
At issue was whether certain city meetings should be conducted in-person or virtually, and hours of operation at city hall.
At an Oct. 12 City Council study session, City Clerk Josh Stecker recommended that some city meetings be held virtually, rather than in person. He also recommended that the Civic Center building on Grandview Street be closed to the public on Fridays, saving on utility costs and allowing employees to work remotely.
The proposal called for remote meetings in cases where “public interaction is minimal or not allowed.” That includes the city council’s Thursday study sessions and meetings of advisory boards or commissions.
Both measures would support the council’s recently approved Climate Action Plan, reducing emissions by cutting back on car trips to the civic center, Stecker said. The memo further noted that remote meetings would be more efficient for staff members, who “would not need to sit through meetings to wait for their topic to come up on the agenda.“
Members of the public can watch virtual meetings live via Zoom, and the city typically posts recordings of such meetings for people who want to watch later. Local governments around the state and the country expanded use of Zoom and other virtual meeting technologies during the COVID-19 pandemic.
After the Oct. 12 study session, Stecker emailed members of the city’s advisory boards and commissions, directing them to hold future meetings on Zoom, rather than in person.
Later, he sent a second email to city advisory boards retracting the virtual-only directive, noting that he had “misinterpreted” the council’s direction.
According to city staff, each advisory board will decide whether to meet in person or virtually. So far, the Planning, Civil Service and Parks commissions have voted to meet in person, with a Zoom option. Other groups have yet to decide.
Woock often emails her constituents to recap city meetings. Her email about the Oct. 12 study session alerted readers to the virtual-only meetings discussion, saying “this doesn’t seem to meet the council’s goal of reaching out and engaging with our citizens. Transparency? Democracy? Teambuilding won’t be happening.”
In a second email, on Oct. 25, Woock included a copy of Stecker’s memo about remote meetings and civic center hours.
“While I do wonder about the lack of data showing zoom meetings are a better way than preserving and planting trees to make an impact on Green House Gas Emissions, every time the doors are open for our citizens, taxpayers and voters … it is a good thing,” she wrote.
On Oct. 25, Markley sent a message to the city’s email subscribers and posted on the city’s website and Facebook page in response to Woock’s statements. Markley wrote that she had received “numerous inquiries from residents and stakeholders (who) received an email or read Facebook posts from Councilmember Jeni Woock about recent city council discussions. These messages contained several inaccuracies and misrepresentations that need to be clarified.”
Markley wrote that the “majority of the council decided to change only the council’s Thursday (study session) meetings to virtual on a trial basis,” adding, in bold face, that “Under no circumstances will the city ever consider ‘shutting the doors’ on residents to a public meeting.”
Markley later told Gig Harbor Now that Woock’s emails prompted concerns from some city residents.
“I get asked, ‘Why is she saying these things?’ so I’m going to call it out as incorrect,” Markley said. “I’ve been really kind in not mentioning her by name (previously), but I’m not sure this will stop if I don’t do that. When misinformation goes out, I’m going to correct it.
“It doesn’t matter who’s making the inaccurate statement … I’m going to refute it, I’m going to get the truth out there. We don’t have time for this. We don’t have time to continue wasting staff time, wasting my time,” Markley said, adding that the city needs to spend that time addressing pressing issues like crime and housing.
In a follow-up phone conversation, Woock insisted that “the things I put in my emails are factual. I’m careful that what I write is the truth, and everything I write can be checked and verified just by listening to the recordings of the meetings.”
Her concern has “always been about in-person meetings and citizens being able to see and hear what the council and city administration are doing.
“And by the way,” she added, “I don’t think that talking with our citizens is ever a waste of time, no matter what the issue is.”
Civic Center hours
A tentative agenda for the Nov. 13 city council meeting, provided by the city on Oct. 27, included a resolution “establishing hours of operation for the Civic Center.” However, the resolution was not included in official council agenda published Nov. 8. The city did not respond to emails asking about the removal of the resolution from the agenda.