Council OKs federal COVID relief dollars for technology upgrades, city funds to rehire staff

Lynnwood IT Director Will Cena (bottom right) Sept. 13 answers questions from Lynnwood City Councilmembers about proposed upgrades to the city’s online streaming equipment.

The Lynnwood City Council Monday night voted to use federal COVID-19 relief funds for technology upgrades designed to improve how city council meetings are streamed online. The council also approved a proposal to fill some city staff positions using city funds.

At its Sept. 13 business meeting, the council voted 4-3 — with Councilmembers Ruth Ross, Patrick Decker and Christine Frizzell opposed — to authorize spending up to $150,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to update the audiovisual equipment in the Lynnwood City Hall council chambers to facilitate hybrid in-person/remote meetings permanently. The initial request from staff was for $100,000. Due to a high number of back orders, the city likely won’t have any new equipment until January 2022. 

Lynnwood was allocated $10.9 million in federal funds to help the city recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. An initial request proposed using some of that money to fill several city staff positions to return service to pre-pandemic levels, funding upgrades to the equipment used to stream council meetings online, and purchase police-worn body cameras.

Last month, the council approved $732,000 to rehire some staff and purchase the body cameras. However, the council decided to delay voting on approving the request from the information technology department pending more information about needed work for the upgrades. During the Monday meeting, Frizzell said she wanted to be sure staff had a clear plan before approving the request.

In response, IT Director Will Cena said staff have already met with a consultant who has drafted a plan for the upgrades. He also said the total amount for the upgrades would likely be less than what they were asking for.

“The $150,000 is if we replace everything we have, getting us to the endpoint of what we’re hoping to achieve,” he said.

Since making the switch to meeting online, the city purchased four new cameras and software to stream meetings online. Cena explained that some of the new equipment may still be usable, meaning the city would spend less money.

Decker said he would only support the request if staff could figure out a way to screen calls from people using hate speech and racial slurs. During the two-hour public comments portion of Monday’s meeting, unknown individuals called in at least four times with recordings using racist language.

“There are ways to do that (and) we need to investigate what those are,” he said. “Even if that means we have to spend more to have that functionality, that would be money well spent.”

Council Vice President Jim Smith agreed with Decker and said the council should look into pursuing legal action against those who called in by tracing their phone number or IP address.

Calls made during the meetings are moderated by City Clerk Karen Fitzthum, who struggled to control the hateful messages and explained that Zoom does not immediately mute someone when prompted. She also said there is no way to screen callers.

However, that explanation provided little comfort to attendees, many of whom were people of color who attended to urge the council to vote against awarding a construction contract for the $69 million Community Justice Center. Lynnwood resident Ashley Kay Smith asked the council how Black people are supposed to feel safe when confronted with hate speech during a public meeting.

“We’re supposed to be…sharing with you why we should have no new jail and we’re sitting here having to hear the n-word over and over and over again,” she said.

On Tuesday, the city issued a statement signed by Mayor Nicola Smith and Council President George Hurst condemning the incident and said the city is working with IT to review the public comments process.

Our city council meetings and other related city meetings are a place for healthy community discourse,” the statement read. “We encourage all voices, and we understand that we will not always agree, and we all have different communication styles. However, we will not accept the use of racial slurs or any other type of derogatory language.”

Later during the meeting, the council voted almost unanimously to approve construction of the Community Justice Center. Ross was the lone dissenting vote.

The vote came after dozens of community members spoke against the project, which includes expanding the police department, municipal courts and jail. The current jail has 46 beds and the new jail would 120. Many questioned the city’s ability to handle more inmates after the death of a Tirhas Tesfatsion, Black woman who died in the Lynnwood in July. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office ruled her death was by suicide. An outside investigation was conducted by the Kirkland Police Department, which revealed that custody officers did not check on Tesfatsion during the three hours prior to her death, violating the department’s policy to check on inmates every 60 minutes.

During the public comments, one speaker asked the council why the police department’s policy regarding inmate checks was not on their website. The public comments period does not allow for councilmembers to respond to residents’ questions.

However, police spokesperson Joanna Small said some department policies relating to operational security are not listed online for safety reasons.

“When we made the manual public (which was only a few years ago), we removed policies from public view that could potential cause safety issues for our staff or our operations,” she said. “If it has to do with operational security, we don’t want people to know that.”

Also during the meeting, the council voted 5-2 — with Ross and Frizzell voting no — to fill 8.2 full-time equivalent (FTE) city staff positions using no more than $656,000 from the city’s general fund. The positions will be funded through 2022.

Aiming to return the city to prep-pandemic levels of service by fall, the council voted to hire another police evidence officer, a legal specialist for the court, a custodian for public works, and to fill 5.2 FTE positions in the city’s parks and recreation department. Most of the staffing needs in parks and rec are part time at the Lynnwood recreation and senior centers.

The motion came after the council voted 5-2 — with Sessions and Frizzell voting against — to approve an amendment by Hurst to first use the general fund to pay for the positions before using the ARPA funds. Speaking to his amendment, Hurst said Lynnwoood’s sales tax revenues have been increasing, which should help the city pay for the new staff. He added that if the revenues began to trend down, the council could discuss using ARPA funds at the mid-biennium review in November.

Sessions said she would have agreed with Hurst’s proposal a month ago, but now she did not think it was likely that the city would be better off financially in a few months.

“I don’t think we need to wait until November to know we’re deep in (the pandemic) and it’s not getting greatly better at this point,” she said.

In other business, the council:

-unanimously voted to approve a franchise agreement with Puget Sound Energy for operations of natural gas facilities

-adopted a resolution declaring September as National Hispanic Heritage Month

-confirmed candidates Simreet Dhaliwal and Jeanna Kim to the city’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission and appointed applicant Presley Morrissey to the Parks & Recreation Board.

–By Cody Sexton

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