Members of the Yelm City Council are divided on whether or not the governing body should resume its in-person meetings that have been replaced the last two months with online gatherings due to the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The council voted 3-2 vote Tuesday, May 12, in favor of seeking legal advice from the city’s attorney on whether the council has the authority — in consideration of state orders against most gatherings — to resume regular meetings on its own accord and if that action would be legal.
Council members James Blair, Joe DePinto and Terry Kaminski voted in favor while council members Tad Stillwell and Molly Carmody were opposed. Council member Tracey Wood was absent from the meeting.
Blair first brought the motion up at the beginning of the meeting. He initially moved to have the council resume in-person meetings effective May 26.
Other council members have floated the idea in prior meetings.
“My concern is there’s a very different dynamic between in-person and these virtual meetings,” Blair said. “On top of that, not everybody has the capacity to view and interact with these virtual meetings that possibly would want to, and at the same time people deserve the capability to come to the meeting and confront council in person.”
Blair’s motion was not part of the council’s published agenda but was added on later.
The motion initially received support from DePinto, who said he believed the council could reopen to the public and implement distancing measures in a responsible and effective manner.
Carmody and Stillwell disagreed with the motion.
“I think it’s a bad idea for council to lead by example in this case. Leading by example in this case is breaking the law,” Carmody said. “I don’t care whether you like it or dislike it, it’s wrong and it’s illegal and telling people it’s OK to go around breaking the law just because council’s doing it isn’t right. I really think we should think about whether or not we’re setting a good example.”
Carmody later said she would not attend in-person meetings if the council were to resume them.
Stay home orders in response to this year’s COVID-19 outbreak have been a topic of national debate, sparking in-person protests and demonstrations at state capitols.
Mayor JW Foster said during the meeting that the council took an oath of office to follow the laws of the state of Washington, adding that the legality of Gov. Jay Inslee’s order can only be challenged by the two other equal branches — the state Legislature or the courts.
State Rep. Andrew Barkis, R-Olympia, was among a small number of Republican lawmakers who recently filed suit against Inslee and his order in federal court. The plaintiffs allege Inslee’s stay-home order violates the U.S. Constitution.
DePinto proposed an amendment to Blair’s original motion to allow the council to return to normal meetings and act on the measure only if it's found to be lawful.. The suggestion was to have the city attorney provide the legal advice. Both the amendment and measure was passed 3-2.
Carmody said she’s not sure if the city’s attorney is the most knowledgeable legal expert on this matter and suggested the city should have a constitutional lawyer or another experienced attorney look at the legality of reopening.
Shortly after the publication of this article online, Blair clarified his statement about having the public attend in-person meetings.
"To clarify, this motion was meant for council to resume in-person meetings," Blair wrote.
"Although I stated it is important for people to have the opportunity to confront council in person, I did not make it clear that it was not the intention to reopen meetings to the public to physically attend. I recognize that city hall is closed to the public, and other options will have to be utilized for public engagement."