Bellingham City Council offers many options for public interaction

COURTESY TO THE BELLINGHAM HERALDMay 8, 2014 

Ever wonder about the inner workings of city government?

As the new legislative assistant to the Bellingham City Council, I'd like to share some observations from my first month on the job. The heart of city politics beats vigorously these days with issues such as rental registration and safety improvements for the Alabama corridor being discussed.

I am impressed by how engaged the council members are and how thoroughly they research and consider the issues at hand. In their decision-making processes, they are respectful of constituents' concerns and feedback. Being on the City Council is a part-time job; some members hold other employment. They are busy people, yet they make constituent engagement one of their priorities.

I am also impressed by how carefully the council office handles constituent correspondence. During the process of developing the waterfront master plan, for example, each council member received a binder that included the community's voluminous input. When an email is received concerning a matter slated for a public hearing, that message is forwarded to all council members and a hard copy is added to the public record.

I admire the integrity of the process. Citizens are afforded the opportunity to share their viewpoints during a 15-minute public comment period at the start of every regular city council meeting. While the law does not require the city to provide this open forum, it is an important tradition respected by this governing body.

The city recently launched online tools that make council business even easier for the public to access. The system automated our agenda-building process to provide paperless options for all users, helping us save time and money. It provides to everyone improved one-stop access to agenda materials, minutes and video recordings. It allows us to publish the agenda and materials a day earlier than in the past.

While many of the city's practices are dictated by "sunshine" laws such as the Open Public Meetings Act, some are simply a reflection of the ethos of this council and the commitment of its members.

There are a few different types of meetings held by the council, all of which are open to the public, each with its own purpose. Having an understanding of the differences can be helpful.

Standing committee meetings are for information gathering and discussion among council members and city staff and administration. The six committees -- finance and personnel, Lake Whatcom/natural resources, parks and recreation, planning, public works/public safety, and community and economic development -- meet in the mornings and afternoons on council Mondays when there is business to discuss. The recommendations of each committee are presented at the regular city council meeting in the evening.

Work sessions are where committee members and staff (and sometimes community members who bring specific expertise) roll up their sleeves and lay every option on the table to discuss solutions. Such sessions may occur during standing committee meetings, or as stand-alone meetings.

Public hearings solicit public input on a particular issue during a specified period of time. They include an assembly where any member of the public may speak on the issue at hand. Advanced notice is published in the newspaper and posted to interested parties. Public comment is received via email, U.S. mail, phone and in-person; it remains a part of the public record throughout the legislative process.

Regular city council meetings take place twice a month, usually every other Monday at 7 p.m., in the council chambers at Bellingham City Hall, 210 Lottie St. The purpose of the regular meeting is to make decisions and legislate city business by passing ordinances and resolutions. The regular meeting also serves to educate the public on city business and to provide a forum for expression of public opinion.

Part of my job is to listen to the public and relay your feelings, ideas and concerns to the council and to assist you with learning the process and gathering information. Whatever your issue, make your voice heard through the many available avenues. Get engaged. We want to hear from you. An active citizenry makes for a robust democracy. Involvement in local issues leads to a flourishing community.

Now that I have an "inside" perspective on local politics, I am happy to affirm that your feedback is not only welcomed, it is considered necessary as we work together to create the best version of Bellingham possible.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Marie Marchand is the Bellingham City Council legislative assistant. To contact the council office, call 360-778-8200 or email ccmail@cob.org. For information online, go to cob.org/council.

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