Blaine City Council approves updated meeting procedures


Blaine City Council unanimously approved amending its rules of procedure governing public meetings February 12, after holding a special meeting February 8 to review the changes. The revised rules, which clarify the means by which public comments may be submitted, come as council meetings in recent months have been disrupted by a small group of people who have hurled accusations against council members and city staff.

New notices posted in council chambers and city hall stated that the mayor could limit audience participation to written communication only, submitted to the council by email or written with pens and paper that were provided.

A crowd packed into council chambers, some of whom said they attended after hearing about the contentious meetings. Previously, council allowed spoken public comments near the beginning of its meetings but on Monday, it went directly to action items, including council voting 6-0, with councilmember Eric Davidson absent, to approve Resolution 1941-24, amending the rules of procedure. It wasn’t until the last few minutes of the meeting that mayor Mary Lou Steward said there would be no verbal public comment at the meeting, which was met without argument.

Meetings held by government agencies in the state of Washington are governed by the state Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) which requires most government meetings to be open to the public. The OPMA also contains provisions to deal with disruptive conduct.

“The resolution’s stated purposes are to promote efficiency in meetings, ensure the orderly conduct of city business, avoid disruptions to the meeting, provide for authentic and non-artificial testimony, and maintain order generally, all as envisioned by state law,” according to the resolution summary. 

Attendance at council meetings began to increase last year when the city considered zoning that would allow large manufactured home parks in east Blaine. About two dozen people, most of whom lived in the area, began speaking out against the proposal.

After council approved the zoning change on October 23, 2023, a smaller number of people calling themselves “Save Blaine” began accusing the city of being unethical and lacking transparency, among other charges. They have employed pseudonyms such as Madam Watchdog, who has played recordings of an altered voice called “the Professor,” and been generally disruptive.

Police monitored a few meetings late last year as contention increased. The group has questioned whether the city has the authority to enforce certain meeting rules or if they were only recommendations. Such rules include whether the public is mandated to state their name and address before giving comment. As the OPMA doesn’t require that information be given during public comment, the city clarified in its new rules of procedure that the public is only requested for the record.

“The city decided to change its rules of procedure to make the meetings more orderly,” Steward said. “We have to get legislation done and we have to pay our bills. We need to do this in a way that is efficient without causing cancellation of meetings because of disruptions or pauses in meetings to settle everything down. Our concern was being able to do the business of the city of Blaine.” 

City attorney Peter Ruffatto said during the February 8 special council meeting that most of the changes to the rules of procedure were clarifications.

“Some of the things we’re going to talk about in terms of language change already comply with the rules, but it’s good to have those explicit in case there’s any question,” Ruffatto told council. 

The updated rules of procedure eliminated a sentence violating the Open Public Meetings Act stating, “Requests to take photos require advance approval by the mayor, city manager or chair.” Members of the Save Blaine group highlighted the line and requested the city update its rules in an email sent late December to the city. 

In response to the line taken out, city manager Mike Harmon wrote in an email to The Northern Light, “As the OPMA is updated and new case law is made, the city must continually adapt to comply with the latest regulations and requirements.”

The OPMA has largely remained unchanged since being enacted in 1971, according to the Municipal Research and Services Center website, and has long allowed the public to take photographs and video meetings provided doing so is not disruptive. At least in recent years, the city has not enforced its photography rule in council meetings.

Among the new changes, an open public comment section outlines council must accept oral or written comment at regular meetings where action is taken, the public must speak at the podium, and the mayor is allowed to change the format. The rules define out-of-order conduct by which someone can be removed, by either the mayor or majority of council. 

If verbal comments are allowed, speakers are limited to three minutes, which include preparation for audio or visuals, unless the mayor allows additional time. Comment time may not be ceded to other members of the public, and prerecorded statements aren’t allowed.  

Under the city’s rules for decorum, the city added “slanderous remarks” as an example of behavior that people attending city council meetings shall refrain from engaging in. The rules already prohibited personal attacks and “other unruly, uncivil, harassing, intimidating, disruptive or threatening behaviors.” 

A new paragraph says a breach of the rules doesn’t cause liability for the city and failure to adhere to the rules doesn’t invalidate a council act, unless provided by law.

“The key that the council is going to have to remember is there does have to be a lot of allowance and tolerance of harsh criticism,” Ruffatto said. “But unless it elicits disruption, it’s not something that can be forced against.” 

Steward said she would advise the planning commission to only allow written comments right now. 

“I would love it sooner than later,” Steward said, regarding when council would accept oral comments again. “We need to wait and see what type of situation is going to evolve with our meetings.”


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