The time has come for the city of Montesano to get serious about listening.
I’m not talking about listening to the public, per se, but ensuring that the public can listen to its council members and staff during public meetings.
Frankly, I’m tired that the dozens of complaints about City Attorney Dan Glenn are going unheard and that Mayor Ken Estes has neither effectively addressed nor solved the public’s problem with hearing the city attorney during public meetings.
Besides Glenn having a soft voice, he doesn’t use a microphone available to him. Unless you’re only a couple of feet away from him, you can’t hear him.
A solution to this problem is long overdue. This has been a consistent complaint from members of the public for years. Yet, every month in Montesano, it’s like it’s the first time the complaint has been made.
The advice on my first week here from reporters and the former editor of The Vidette: At Montesano City Council meetings, sit in the front row or you won’t be able to hear attorney Glenn. And even then, you’ll be lucky if you hear half of what he says.
That tells me that the longstanding problem has simply become accepted by the City Council members, Mayor Estes and the city administration.
But, frankly, it’s unacceptable that the numerous complaints have been ignored for so long.
Glenn is not a city employee. He works under contract. And, by his insistence, he received a raise to his contract at the end of last year. Before the next contract is prepared, may I advise the council to add a clause to it that he use the microphone?
Glenn also represents other municipalities, including Elma and McCleary.
In McCleary, the room is so small that we can all hear him better, though sometimes he still talks softly.
Elma recently built a new, less-cavernous council chambers with improved acoustics. I wish I could say that’s so we can all hear Mr. Glenn better, but there were many other reasons, too. Still, the result is pretty good — soft-speaking people can be heard better in that room. In the old council chambers, the public complained regularly about Glenn’s soft voice.
I’m not saying Montesano needs to build new council chambers to accommodate Glenn’s soft voice. Rather, the mayor has a simple solution: At the beginning of each public meeting, he should make sure Mr. Glenn’s microphone is turned on and remind him to speak into it.
If Glenn doesn’t comply, have him repeat into the microphone what he said.
County staff do this all the time for folks who testify at public meetings before the county commissioners and even remind the commissioners to use the microphones — and the acoustics in the commission chambers are way better.
Microphones work great in other local governments — three cheers to the city of Aberdeen and City Attorney Eric Nelson, and the city of Hoquiam and City Attorney Steve Johnson and the Port of Grays Harbor and attorney Art Blauvelt for figuring out how to talk at an appropriate volume and use the microphones at the same time. I never knew it was such a big deal before I started covering East County.
Last summer, when hundreds attended Montesano council meetings and the meetings were moved upstairs, it was really hard to hear anyone. Mayor Estes made a big issue out of moving the meetings downstairs and creating an “overflow” room upstairs — which no one has ever used, by the way. The city spent many thousands of dollars on speakers and connecting them to the city’s microphones.
So why has the city of Montesano so much public money if they allow staff members who can’t be heard not to use them?
Last week, a certified American Sign Language interpreter protested to city staff that she couldn’t hear Glenn and, thus, couldn’t interpret properly for Councilwoman Marisa Salzer, who is legally deaf. I’m pretty sure if paid city staff are talking so softly that a certified interpreter mandated to be there can’t hear that person, there’s a violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act there somewhere.
Salzer does have hearing aids and before she was sworn in, all the council members moved their seating arrangements — just so Salzer could sit closer to Glenn, hoping she’d be able to catch some of what he says.
If that’s not living in denial that there’s a bigger problem here, I don’t know what is.
Last week, a member of the public said during a public comment period that Glenn had moved his lap top in front of the microphone and was speaking so softly that she couldn’t hear him.
I chimed in to support that member of the public.
Instead of dealing with the problem, Councilman Pat Herrington decided to berate me for not standing and identifying myself properly during public comment. I’m pretty sure Mr. Herrington knows who I am. And I’m pretty sure he’s missed the point — that none of us can hear the city’s attorney. Instead of berating me, Councilman Herrington, point that finger at your city attorney and do something about the long-standing problem.
If the city needs a law to rely on for that, I point to the state’s Open Public Meetings Act. While the act states that public comment is entirely optional, what isn’t optional is that we, the public, have a right to attend public meetings and hear all deliberations before a public vote. Those deliberations include the questions asked by council members and the mayor and the answers made by city staff, including Glenn.
The city’s in clear violation here.
And if city officials don’t want to rely on state law to address the problem, lean on the Municipal Research and Services Center of Washington, which has been “working together for excellence in local government.” The group, which Glenn uses to look up legal advice, has pages and pages of recommendations for ways that local government can be more efficient. And they clearly recommend the use of microphones by members of the public — and city staff.
By the way, at last week’s council meeting, when a member of the public recommended Glenn move his computer so he could speak into the microphone, I checked the microphone — and it was off. So even that wouldn’t have helped.
My recommendation for Mayor Estes is to make sure Glenn’s microphone is on at every meeting. You may be able to hear him because you sit next to him. But no one else can. I’d hate to think you maybe like it that way, that if no one can hear answers to questions that have been asked, maybe there won’t be any more questions from the public. Moreover, if the public’s consistent concern with this problem remains unsolved, some might wonder if the city’s also turning a deaf ear to the public in other areas.
Steven Friederich is editor of The Vidette. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org