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Snoqualmie to try out online meetings

The Snoqualmie City Council will soon be holding a few special meetings online.

Starting at the end of February, the technology is expected to be available for the City Council to hold special meetings in a virtual "chat room," according to PJ Rodriguez, systems network engineer.

"Net meetings will be used very sparingly and only when necessary due to a time factor," said Councilmember Kathi Prewitt.

The meetings would be infrequent at best, said City Councilmember Maria Henriksen, adding that the council would not use the service until the council approves the policies, rules and procedures in line currently to accommodate the online option, which are currently in development.

"Occasionally the staff needs discussion in the interim and the e-meetings would allow them to meet," Henriksen said, noting that levels of decision-making that need more consideration or deliberation would not be something appropriate for a special online meeting. These will be established and specified in the policies, rules and procedures documents. "In no way should it replace face-to-face time or regular meetings."

The public would be able to go to the city Web site and follow along with the online meeting, much like instant messaging or an online chat session, said City Attorney Pat Anderson.

"It's a way for the council members to get together when on a shorter time frame," said Kingston Wall, City Council member. "The public will always be able to view the conversations online."

For people without Internet access, transcripts of the meetings would be available and Anderson noted that the city is currently considering the need for the online meetings to be displayed on a monitor in a public place as they happen.

Identity of the users would be maintained and secured by giving council members secure log-on passcodes and there may be the opportunity for the public to comment online, though special meetings don't always require the opportunity for public comment.

"It's OK to try stuff and if it increases participation and the flow of information, then that's a good thing ... To look for new, innovative ways for additional participation certainly has merit," said Brian Sonntag, state auditor. The State Auditor's Office focuses on ensuring proper use of public resources and government actions.

He said that his concern would only be in continuing to keep all meetings open to the public and that voting continues to take place in the public eye.

"It's a way of being able to keep the city running efficiently so that the fact that we meet every two weeks doesn't slow something down," Henriksen said. "We know that the city is getting bigger and we want to be accessible to the mayor and staff when they really need an answer."

In accordance with the requirements of the Open Public Meetings Act, the council would abide by already established public meeting rules.

There are two requirements for meetings, Anderson said. One is notice of the meeting in advance (24 hours) and the other is that the meetings have to be open to the public.

"We have to make sure all the t's are crossed and i's are dotted," Anderson said in regards to following legal procedure. He noted that the cost of developing the technology was minimal.

A special meeting of the council is something that happens as the need arises, Anderson said. A special meeting happens outside of the regular City Council meetings and its purpose is to discuss minor issues that need action before the next regular meeting, such as dealing with or getting direction on an unexpected maintenance issue.

The agenda topic is the only thing that can be discussed at a special meeting. The meetings may happen as infrequently as three to five times a year.

"I'm excited about it; it gives us an opportunity to keep things moving smoothly," said Mayor Matt Larson.

Though the idea had been discussed previously, the City Council took it under serious consideration during the recent new City Council member orientation on Jan. 11.

The suggestion was made to try to take better advantage of technology, Henriksen said.

"All of these council members are quite computer savvy," Anderson said. "They would like to do a lot of business electronically and they're all very e-mail savvy, but it would be illegal to hold meetings via e-mail because people can't observe their deliberations."

City Council member Charles Peterson, who is not a fan of e-mail communication, said he is still evaluating the e-meetings option.

"I'm old school," he said. "[But] that's what they would like to try, so I'm willing to give it a try."

Henriksen said that the City Council is looking for feedback on the e-meetings, both ahead of time and once they happen.

"I would encourage people to look at the council rules and procedures to understand how it's going to be used," she added.

For information, call the Snoqualmie Administration Building at (425) 888-1555.

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