Study sessions or no study sessions

Sequim’s city council continues to wrestle as to whether monthly study sessions should be mandated or not. The debate began during a special meeting held by the council on Jan. 4. That special meeting was already a sign of contention. Called by the incoming council members — Susan Lorenzen, Laura Dubois, Ken Hays and Erik Erichsen — following a Jan. 2 official swearing in to office, incumbents Bill Huizinga and Paul McHugh were unable to attend given the meeting’s short notice.

“The first I ever heard of the meeting was when I opened my Gazette that morning,” said McHugh, who was unable to attend the meeting due to family obligations.

During the Jan. 4 meeting, the issue of study sessions first appeared for discussion with the incoming council members wanting to reinstate bimonthly study sessions. City attorney Craig Ritchie said that there were two ways to do it: by passing an ordinance reinstating mandated study sessions or by holding study sessions whenever an issue came up, but giving sufficient notification to the public, such as legal notices, which are costly. Reinstating and mandating study sessions is more cost efficient, Ritchie said, because canceling a mandated meeting can just mean a simple sign on the door, a phone call or a post on the city’s Web site.

“How do you think people are going to feel if there’s a sign on the door?” said councilman Walt Schubert during the Jan. 14 meeting. “And people don’t always use the Internet or call.”

The new council would like to see study sessions reinstated for a number of reasons. For one, they believe the sessions would assist in bringing them up to speed on the state of the city, its issues and the nature of their jobs. For the incoming city council members, study sessions would be exactly that, a time to study. Secondly, the sessions would give residents who might not be able to make it to evening meetings a chance to more adequately participate in Sequim government.

“There are so many people who would like to be here, but can’t because they can’t drive during the night,” said Lorenzen, contending that a majority of Sequim residents would still be able to attend the mandated study sessions if they were held in the morning or afternoon.

“The public needs to have more time to tell us what they need,” said Erichsen. “A lot of my neighbors go to bed at seven and can’t be here.”

The new council members also see the study sessions as a way to lighten the load of regular meetings. For example, when the city’s town center sub-area plan was first presented to the council — something that the council would not be taking action on at that time — it was done during the council’s regularly scheduled meeting. With study sessions, the sub-area plan could have been presented to the council then, perhaps shaving a significant amount of time off the regular meeting. And in many cases, during council study or work sessions, the public is barred from commenting at all.

“The simple truth is, it’s about process,” said Hays. “We need an opportunity to discuss issues informally.”

McHugh countered that mandating study sessions, which would most likely be held every other Wednesday morning, would actually be a disservice to the public and would prohibit them from participating to Sequim’s government. Unlike Lorenzen, McHugh believes that many people — including himself — have to work during the day and don’t have time to attend a study session. McHugh, who joined the council when there were mandated study sessions and fought to get rid of them, said that the public didn’t like that they had missed entire discussions regarding certain resolutions.

“I think the public really wondered when we were making our decisions,” said McHugh. He suggested that if the council wanted to save time, it should reorganize the regular meetings. For example, provide only one public comment period at the end of meeting and push executive sessions to the front of the meeting.

“I don’t think it’s necessary and I don’t think it’s in the interest of the public,” McHugh said plainly.

Huizinga agreed.

“Paul and I found that we were spending two or three hours on nothing,” Huizinga said. “You schedule a special meeting when something comes up.”

Although an ordinance was handed to the council during the Jan. 14 meeting, no motion was made or action carried. Ritchie plans to add more specifics to the ordinance in time for the regular meeting on Jan. 28, study session. It will be then that the council debate regarding study sessions will resume.

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