Council member Vivian Olson (left), Mayor Mike Nelson (center) and council member Diane Buckshnis practiced social distancing at the Edmonds City Council meeting Tuesday. (City of Edmonds)

Council member Vivian Olson (left), Mayor Mike Nelson (center) and council member Diane Buckshnis practiced social distancing at the Edmonds City Council meeting Tuesday. (City of Edmonds)

Social distancing makes its way to local city councils

City councils across Snohomish County are moving to virtual meetings to avoid spreading the virus.

EDMONDS — The Edmonds City Council chambers were nearly empty Tuesday night, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Mayor Mike Nelson and council members Diane Buckshnis and Vivian Olson were the only elected officials present on the dais. The five other council members telephoned in. With new social distancing rules in place across the state and country, city governments are trying to do their part in stopping the spread of the coronavirus.

The Edmonds council voted unanimously Tuesday night to hold future meetings remotely. Soon, other cities are expected to do the same.

“It’ll have its ups and downs,” Edmonds City Council President Adrienne Fraley-Monillas said. “By the time we have it down pat, we’ll probably be back to our regular council meetings.”

City councils in Everett, Lynnwood, Mukilteo, Monroe and Marysville are looking to expand telecommuting abilities, as well.

“This is something that’s pretty new for most communities, I’ve never experienced anything remotely close to this,” Everett City Council President Judy Tuohy said.

The Everett City Council held its regular meeting Wednesday night. Members could move to remote meetings next week, Tuohy said.

Most councils are now taking citizen comments through email only.

“There are some topics that we know will generate a lot of interested folks to come in,” Tuohy said. “If they’re not an emergency issue, we will postpone those hearings out a few weeks.”

In Everett, that includes a vote on expanding the number of marijuana stores within city limits from five to eight, she said.

By switching to virtual meetings, local governments have to find a way for residents, who previously would sign up to speak live in front of council members, to comment on issues and policy ideas.

Under the state’s Open Public Meetings Act, the council chambers must be open, even if council members aren’t present.

Councils that plan on holding meetings remotely will broadcast them on screens in their council chambers, in an effort to provide access to people who can’t watch at home.

At the same time, members are urging residents to stay home.

“I think we’re all in uncharted territory right now when it comes to respecting the law, but also people don’t need to be coming out in public,” said Julie Moore, a spokeswoman for the city of Lynnwood.

Lynnwood’s council has cancelled two meetings while city leaders look into remote options, she said.

Not all councils are going fully remote, though.

In Mukilteo, Mayor Jennifer Gregerson was alone on the dais during Monday’s city council meeting. All seven council members participated by phone.

“It was definitely sort of strange and eerie,” Gregerson said. “I’m glad the council jumped on board to try out a new phone conference system and make sure they were fully prepared.”

Going forward, the council will continue to meet by phone, with the mayor being the sole member present on the dais.

In Marysville, city leaders will vote Monday on an emergency resolution that lets members participate in meetings by phone, city spokeswoman Connie Mennie said.

City staff is spacing chairs in the council chambers out six feet apart for residents who attend.

Monroe’s City Council members are allowed to participate remotely and the city is testing virtual meeting options, the mayor’s office said.

This week’s meeting was cancelled. On March 24, the council will hold its regular business meeting in the chambers, where chairs will be spaced to promote social distancing.

In addition to city councils, cities across the county have cancelled citizen-led board and commission meetings.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

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