Clallam commissioners clarify public comment policy

First period on Tuesday meetings restricted to agenda items only

PORT ANGELES — The Clallam County commissioners will keep comments at their Monday work sessions restricted to stakeholders directly involved with topics.

They also decided to change the first of two public comment periods during their regular Tuesday meetings to emphasize that the first session is restricted to agenda items only. The second public comment period will remain open to comments on any topic.

Commission Chair Mike French wrote in a Tuesday afternoon email that restricting public comment at work sessions to just stakeholders is legal because no final action is taken during the Monday meetings.

French brought up the subject earlier this month because of an article written by the Municipal Research and Services Center about disruptive comments at public meetings as well as a recent Port Angeles City Council meeting that was disrupted with someone who used anti-Semitic remarks.

The Oct. 17 Port Angeles City Council meeting was disrupted multiple times by a group of virtual participants who allegedly logged in using fake names during both a public hearing and the public comment period to complain about the conflict between Israel and Hamas that began Oct. 7. At least one of the participants was muted.

Mayor Kate Dexter said after the meeting that it appeared to be a group of white supremacists. The incident prompted the city to issue a statement on Oct. 19 denouncing hate speech.

“On Oct. 17, the Port Angeles City Council meeting was the target of hate speech by virtual participants using fake names,” the statement read. “The City of Port Angeles has a steadfast commitment to inclusivity and does not tolerate hate or discrimination.

“Our City embraces freedom of speech and respects diverse opinions. However, we draw a clear line when it comes to hate speech and discrimination based on race, religion, national origin, age, gender, disability or sexual orientation.”

County Commissioner Mark Ozias said the Monday work sessions are the only formal time to have generative conversation among the three commissioners without violating the state’s Open Public Meetings Act.

“I feel protective of that because it is the only time that we have to do that,” Ozias said. “But I like trying to flesh out a dialogue opportunity.”

French agreed.

“And I would say that — this always comes out awkwardly to the public — but our meetings are for us to do business,” he said. “Because we are under a lot of restrictions from things like the Public Meetings Act.”

Ozias said he conisders it helpful to give people an opportunity to say something at the beginning of the meeting before the board conducts a lot of business.

“I think if we are going to make changes, if anything, I would advocate maintaining two comment periods so that we give people an opportunity to comment without having to wait through our whole meeting,” Ozias said.

Clallam County Administrator Todd Mielke said he has heard there is public appetite to be able to ask a question or enter into a dialogue with the board.

“And I would say if I have heard any criticism, it’s that people talk and they just get a silent wall. And so when you think about Tuesdays, the hearing days, you’re supposed to be making a decision,” Mielke said.

“And somebody is trying to determine whether they want to provide input. They’re not quite sure they understand the issue. Maybe they didn’t sit through the work session,” he said.

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Reporter Brian Gawley can be reached at brian.gawley@peninsulanews.us.

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