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Originally published Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Council members may phone-vote

The Snohomish County Council's decision — over the objections of County Executive Aaron Reardon — to allow its members to cast...

Times Snohomish County Bureau

The Snohomish County Council's decision — over the objections of County Executive Aaron Reardon — to allow its members to cast votes by telephone is a step into trendsetting territory.

The council last week unanimously overrode a Nov. 20 veto by Reardon, who had stated that physical attendance at public meetings is "fundamental" to the U.S. form of government. He quoted the U.S. Constitution regarding a requirement that members of Congress be "present" for votes, and noted that state legislators adhere to similar expectations.

"I think it's important that the legislative branch face the public when they cast their votes," Reardon said. "It's what they're paid to do."

While the Snohomish County Council apparently is the first county body to adopt a teleconference policy, several Washington cities — including Bothell, Spokane, Port Townsend and Battle Ground — allow similar votes, said Marcia Isenberg, council chief of staff.

Snoqualmie allows its City Council to hold emergency meetings in cyberspace, with "e-meetings" conducted in an Internet chat room.

The new Snohomish County rules allow each council member to cast long-distance votes twice per year. An absent member would be required to participate — via speakerphone — in the entire discussion, including listening to all public testimony.

A council quorum must be physically present for any vote, under the new county policy.

"It will be a public session. It doesn't really change that," said Councilman Dave Somers during the council's brief deliberations on the veto override. "Everybody will be accessible to the public."

Later in the week, Somers noted that the new voting provision could be valuable in the case of a disaster — such as flooding or a pandemic — which interfered with a member's ability to travel.

Councilman Kirke Sievers said he found it ironic that Reardon was chastising the council for a lack of "transparency" in its actions, pointing out that Reardon didn't try to talk to the council about his veto. Reardon instead announced the veto, and explained his rationale, in a memo issued at 4 p.m. on the eve of the four-day Thanksgiving holiday.

"It's easy to talk cheap, I guess," Sievers said. "You talk about public access. I haven't seen Aaron up here, speaking, in his four years [in office.]"

Chris Bridston, deputy director of the Washington Association of County Officials, was surprised to hear about the new county ordinance.

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"Oh, for heavens sake," she said. "I've never heard of that before."

Tim Ford, open-government ombudsman for the state Attorney General's Office, called it "an interesting question" and one he has pondered before.

State law doesn't directly address the concepts of teleconferences or videoconferences by elected bodies, he said. The main points of legal concern, he said, would be requirements that the public be given adequate notice of meetings and a way to participate.

"With technology [advancing], more and more of these questions are going to pop up," Ford said. "I don't think the Open Meetings Act precludes votes by telephone. But if you think about it a little bit, one of the reasons the public wants to attend meetings is because the public wants to see and not just hear what their members are doing, and you can ascertain much of what a person is feeling by looking at their body language."

The Snoqualmie City Council has twice allowed individual members to vote by speakerphone, and in 2006 held its first e-meeting, said City Clerk Jodi Warren. The council consulted with the Attorney General's Office before crafting its policy, which is intended for emergency meetings to deal with "time critical" situations, she said.

"It's kind of like a chat room," Warren said. "It's [public] noticed 24 hours in advance, and people can actually get onto our Web site and view it."

People who lack access to the Internet are invited to the City Council chambers, where the e-meeting is projected on a screen for public viewing, she said.

Last year, the council held its first — and only — e-meeting, regarding a home outside the city limits with a failed sewer line. Its owner needed City Council permission to get hooked into the city's water system.

"It was really awesome," Warren said. "And I can tell you, minutes were pretty easy to take. And figuring from the number of hits — we had almost 300 — we had probably better attendance at that council meeting than any council meetings we've ever held."

Diane Brooks: 425-745-7802 or dbrooks@seattletimes.com

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