The letters of the law

Cd'A council may craft policy about written comments at meetings

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COEUR d'ALENE - Last week's letters ruffled some feathers - or at least raised some eyebrows.

Now, the city of Coeur d'Alene could consider crafting a policy addressing whether letters should be read into public record during meetings if the author isn't there.

A policy isn't in place. After five letters were read into public record at the Jan. 17 City Council meeting opposing a public vote for the McEuen Field proposal, some said the city should draft a policy to establish a rule whether that should be allowed.

Drawing a clear-cut line could also help the city avoid a possible perception that it could play favorites when it comes to reading written comments.

"In my opinion they put themselves in a little bit of a potential predicament by allowing those citizens to have their letters read," said Dennis Spencer, a member of the steering committee that helped create the McEuen Field conceptual plan. "The city opened up a window that anybody who wants to send a letter can have it read."

Spencer contacted the city last week and said it was opening itself up to having meetings besieged by letters being read as public record. He also said a rule could help clear up any potential perception that the city could pick and choose which letters it wants read.

There could be "a perception out there that the city recruited those letters," Spencer said of the written ones, which came at the end of public testimony and evened the tally of opposition to supporters on the issue. "Unfortunately, perception for most is reality."

In December, Kootenai County Clerk Cliff Hayes wrote a letter to the City Council clarifying rule changes on election result canvassing. The City Council had been confused on procedure, and discussed it at a meeting. Hayes's letter addressed their questions and he requested it be read at the following City Council meeting to clarify.

It wasn't.

"I wanted it read into the record so that the populous would be aware," Hayes said Wednesday. "But that's fine, I can live with that."

The City Clerk's Office said by time the city received Hayes's letter, the canvassing topic wasn't on the meeting's agenda. Instead, the general policy is that written comments not scheduled as an agenda topic aren't read into the record. Instead, they're copied and delivered to each City Council member's mailbox.

Written comments for public hearings or action agenda items, which is what the McEuen Field vote was, are submitted on the record.

They're usually not read verbatim, partly because the request rarely comes.

City Clerk Susan Harris said the McEuen Field letter requests were granted because, besides being an agenda item, the topic has drawn such high public interest.

"It should be something we could be more clear on," said Councilman Mike Kennedy. "Everybody needs to be on the same page what can be allowed to be read at meetings and what should just circulate among the council."

City Councilman Dan Gookin also favors a policy.

Any step to avoid the perception that the city chooses certain letters would be a positive step, he said.

The McEuen Field letters were read at the end of two hours of public testimony, all opposed to a public vote, which is to say they favored that the City Council vote on the downtown park's fate.

Only five of the six letters were read because one writer showed up and testified in person.

At the end of roughly 40 verbal and written comments, opposition and support for the public advisory vote was nearly split.

Kennedy said the letters didn't sway his vote, and that 40 people commenting at a meeting isn't the entire body a councilman considers when voting on a topic.

Gookin said their sudden appearance seemed "very suspicious and oddly coincidental," as though the city recruited them, especially when compared to Hayes's letter, which critiqued the city.

Kennedy denied that was the case.

"I understand the perception, but I didn't take it as such," Kennedy said. But "my feeling would be we should officially adopt some sort of policy."

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