City councilors vote to blur backgrounds in virtual meetings

As Sequim city council continues to meet in virtual sessions because of the COVID-19 pandemic, councilors voted unanimously on Jan. 10 that they all must blur their backgrounds when in session.

A few councilors took issue in their “Open Council Discussion” portion of the meeting with former mayor William Armacost having a cross in his background.

“I think for council decorum I think we should conduct ourselves as if we’re in city chambers,” councilor Kathy Downer said.

“Across our country we do not mix religion and politics. We are in nonpartisan seats. We should not be wearing any political affiliation like an elephant, a donkey or a Punisher pin.

“We should be in a virtual city council chamber. Cities do not allow a cross to be hung on a wall of a council chamber.”

In response, Armacost held a $100 bill to the screen and said, “not that I’m trying to disagree, but the reason our founding fathers chose to take the voyage to uncharted lands was for religious freedoms that we all enjoy.

“There’s a reason that in the Constitution it references ‘In God we Trust’ and there’s this wonderful component of the Constitution — the First Amendment — and we have Freedom of Rights,” Armacost said.

“I am not opposed to accommodating your concerns or others and I believe strongly in separation of church and state.”

Armacost added that his technical skills are not quite up to speed and buttons to blur his background were not appearing.

Councilor Vicki Lowe said it would “take (Armacost) little effort to just move your camera so we would not have to view you cross.”

She added, “Some of my ancestors did not come here and they were already here. If I put anything tribal in my background I think people would come unglued.”

“In all fairness, Mr. Armacost, it would be good if we did not have to view your cross and that we should treat these meetings as if in council chambers.”

Armacost said in is tenure he’s been asked several times: “Why don’t we have a cross or a Buddha or another identifying symbol as we do with the totem in the center of our plaza?”

He said neither he or former city manager Charlie Bush had an answer for that.

“A totem pole is a cultural item, it’s not religious; it tells a story,” Lowe said, adding that a cross and totem pole are different things.

Councilor Rachel Anderson said Armacost received an email from a citizen asking her to keep her children out of the webcam during meetings.

“I kind of feel if my own kids can’t be in the background of a meeting in my own home, and I can blur my background, everybody can,” Anderson said.

Sequim city attorney Kristina Nelson-Gross, who suggested the motion to blur out backgrounds on Zoom, said “there is a Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state (and) I am hearing everybody who agrees with that.”

Nelson-Gross said, “Now keeping in mind we’re in some interesting times where we are in our homes than in our council chambers, there might need to be a certain amount of grace about the things we have in our home.

“As councilor Lowe pointed out, the easiest solution is to blur the background.”

She added that Armacost mentioned he was having issues with the application through a web browser rather than the app itself.

The motion goes into effect at the Jan. 24 virtual city council meeting.

City manager Matt Huish said previously ordered equipment to broadcast in-person meetings live is on its way but no time table for its installation was provided.