Renton council bid to cut meetings, comment time draws flak
On Monday, the Renton City Council and mayor will discuss reducing the number of council meetings and cutting the amount of time for citizens’ comments. Claims of cost savings have not stopped opposition to the proposed changes.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Renton mayor and City Council are looking into reducing the time citizens are given to address the council and changing the number of council meetings from weekly to twice a month.
At 4 p.m. Monday, the council will tackle the issue, which has risen several times before and always has raised the ire of some community members, including several who have been political opponents of current council members.
The community anger “is really unfortunate,’’ said Mayor Denis Law. He insisted it was only a minority of people who are upset.
“This council is completely devoted to being as open as possible, and yet a few people continue to get so much airtime’’ in their claim that “there is this clandestine effort to cut the public out. It’s lunacy,’’ he said.
The fight goes back to the argument over Renton’s library, located over the Cedar River. In 2010, the council voted to annex the library to the King County Library System and build a new library at a shopping mall next to the transit center. To fight it, a citizens group ran a referendum, which passed with 76 percent of the vote in 2012, forcing the council to build the new library at the site over the river.
It left both sides — many city officials and a community group — wary of the other. The hard feelings continue and are reflected in the city’s move to put a lid on public opportunities for comment, said Councilmember Greg Taylor, who opposes the change in meeting frequency.
“There are some interesting dynamics going on in the city of Renton,” he said. “I tend to lean more toward civic engagement and giving the citizens empowerment. I don’t quite think the view is shared by everyone. This whole idea of reducing the frequency of council meetings began after a community controversy over the library.’’
The city sees the reduction in meetings as a way to cut costs and says other cities of comparable size don’t have weekly meetings. The Kent City Council meets the first and third Tuesdays of each month, while Renton’s council meets the first four Mondays of each month. Kent’s population is about 123,000, compared with Renton’s 91,000.
But the council is also interested in reducing the usual two public-comment periods at each council session to just one, Taylor said. And Monday’s discussion about paring the council meetings is not being held in the regular council chambers where it would be recorded and publicly available. Instead, it is planned for another conference room at City Hall, 1055 S. Grady Way, he said.
Law said that to move the meeting to the council chambers would require announcing it at a council meeting and that’s no longer possible.
The reduction of meetings had previously been proposed in July 2012 and then dropped.
This time, the issue is being considered at a meeting of the Committee of the Whole, before the 7 p.m. council meeting.
Beth Asher, who ran for council and lost in November, is one of those opposing the reduction and in an email to the council said there would be no cost savings.
“Staff who appear at presentations, special sessions, or regular council meetings are not paid for that time, so there’s no salary savings,’’ she said. “Council members don’t get extra money for being there since it’s part of their regular job. Paperwork prepared for City Council meetings would remain the same if meetings are reduced — you still have to prepare for discussions on topics with the same sets of paper from the various committees and departments as you do now.
“Mayor and council members seem to feel that they and staff have already worked a full day. Do they forget that members of the public who attend the council meetings have done that too? ... We fight traffic and give up our evenings with family and friends because we’re concerned,’’ Asher wrote.
Nancy Bartley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8522