Local Government 101: A User Guide To City Council Meetings

Speak up, share your voice, and help shape the future of Bainbridge Island

In-person small town politics are now getting a good post-pandemic dust-off – and whether you’ve been here your whole life, or you moved here last week, you’re bound to feel the impact of city council meetings – the forum for our elected council members to discuss and vote on important decision about the future of Bainbridge Island.

City Council meetings are not intended to be intimidating, but to many they can seem that way. In this second installment of our Government 101 series, we’re going to turn the focus on City Council Meetings: their different types, when they happen, the elements of a council agendas, and how you can get involved.

From the Bainbridge Island Comprehensive Plan Update to the Winslow Subarea Plan, equitable and sustainable transportation to Climate Action Plan goals, housing inventory pressures to determining development in neighborhood centers and preserving our aquifers, there are issues and discussions that will impact you, your business, your home and your land.

The Chamber is here to try and demystify the process and help you be heard, so let’s get into it…



City Council meetings are (mostly) there for the public to interact with council, and for presentations be made by city staff, consultants, and local stakeholders, so that council can discuss and then make informed decisions. They are meant to be easy, familiar, and something every resident feels comfortable participating in whether or not you agree with a specific proposal, project, or policy.

While there are other, more unusual forms of council meeting (like retreats, workshops, quasi-judicial hearings), in general there are three principal types of public meetings + one kind of private meeting:

  1. Regular Business Meeting – This is the workhorse of the Bainbridge council and are primarily held to vote on city business in the form of motions, resolutions, and ordinances. These meetings typically showcase final presentations on policy recommendations or updates to projects where council may need to take action in the near future. They may also include public hearings within their agendas. Due to their nature, there is public comment and/or public hearing testimony taken.
  2. Study Session – These meetings study, prepare for, or deliberate emerging issues for potential action. Presentations can be made from invited guests, but public comment will not be taken, and votes are not made.
  3. Special Meeting – Called at a time and date other than those for Business Meetings or Study Sessions. At these meetings City Council may discuss any business that is slated on that agenda as long as its publicly posted prior to the meeting.
  4. Executive Session – Typically held in tandem with a study session or business meeting, but closed to the public because of their sensitive subject matter and are very limited in scope. Council members may only discuss matters pertaining specifically to:
    1. Real estate
    2. Negotiations
    3. Litigation
    4. Evaluation of complaints against personnel
    5. Qualifications of applicants for public employment or performance evaluations
    6. Disciplinary action

Outcomes at council meetings vary from as simple as presiding over civic proclamations that commemorate a special day or recognition from the city, to approving contracts, giving guidance to city staff and citizen committees, and ultimately passing the ordinances that become the letter of the local law and policy City Staff must carry out.



In order of appearance…

  1. Call to Order/Roll Call – The Chair (usually The Mayor) announces the start of the meeting and ensures a quorum (more than 4 council members) is present to conduct business.
  2. Executive Session – Council moves into private chambers for the portion of a public meeting that can be closed to the public by law (if necessary).
  3. Approval of the Agenda/Conflict of Interest Disclosures – The agenda is approved to keep meeting on track and council must disclose any conflicts of interest on the agenda that might preclude them from participating in a particular discussion or agenda.
  4. Public Comment – Any member of the public may address the full council on any public issue whether it’s on the agenda or not.
  5. City Manager’s Report – Opportunity for the City Manager to announce any upcoming events or news.
  6. Consent Agenda – Several items are presented for adoption all at once, including items previously discussed by council, things that were approved by the budget or that are routine/technical in nature that discussion isn’t needed again.
  7. Future Council Agendas – Any council member may request future Council deliberation of agenda items.
  8. Presentations – City staff, advisory groups or outside agencies/consultants present research, data findings, recommendations and next steps to enhance the public’s understanding of complex issues.
  9. Public Hearings – Formal opportunity for public to share views with council members on projects, policies listed on that agenda item, etc.
  10. Unfinished Business – Any item that was pending from the previous meeting can be re-addressed.
  11. New Business – New items presented to council members for discussion and consideration/next steps.
  12. City Council Discussion – Additional time for council discussion and deliberations.
  13. Committee Reports – Reports from City Advisory Committees/Regional Boards council works with.
  14. For The Good of the Order – Council can offer comments/observations of general interest without formal motions.
  15. Adjournment – Conclusion of meeting.

In the past, council meetings commonly took 4 hours or more, but in recent years, they tend to range from 90 minutes to 4 hours.



In person: Make sure to arrive at the start of the meeting so that you can formally sign up for either public comment or the public hearing for the agenda item you would like to speak to. There are sign in sheets at the front table upon entry to the council chambers. The mayor will use that list to call upon public speakers.

Remotely: If you are attending via Zoom, sign in with your full name. When the mayor announces public comment, use the “raise hand” function at the bottom of your on-screen menu. When they call your name, a box will appear on your computer indicating for you to “unmute” yourself to speak.

Note: At the end of the online and offline lists, the mayor may ask if there are any more who are willing to speak (if time allows).

When it is your turn to speak: When you begin comments, be sure to state your name. You can also choose to disclose the general area of the island in which you live or identify if you are from off-island, especially if that has a direct relevance to what you want to speak about, but it isn’t strictly necessary.

To ensure everyone is able to speak, the city generally moderates public speakers and comments by capping them at 3 minutes per individual. While you speak, there will be a visible timer counting down – don’t be freaked out, but do know that council members will also flash a 30-second warning card to let you know you should begin wrapping up. If you are speaking more than a few seconds beyond 3 minutes, you should probably expect to be interrupted.

Council also moderates speaker repetition. For people wishing to speak to a particular agenda item generally, Public Comment at the beginning of the meeting is best. However, if there is a Public Hearing for a particular agenda item, City Council asks that you hold your remarks until testimony is opened for that hearing. This is intended so that the same person does not gives what amounts to the same public comment twice at the same meeting.

That being said, there are times when you can make multiple comments in a meeting (and they focus on different topics). For instance, a resident may make public comment about the Sustainable Transportation Plan at the beginning of the meeting and may also choose to give testimony during a Public Hearing on an unrelated topic.

Note: Council meetings are open meetings, which means that your comments, as well as those of council members will all be a matter of public record for the city, your neighbors, and the press. This isn’t meant to make you nervous but if you say something particularly compelling remember that members of the media can use those comments in their stories without gaining further permission from you.


  1. State your name clearly.
  2. If you feel it’s important, provide your geographic location on the island (neighborhood, street, etc.) or highlight that you’re off-island to frame your comments.
  3. State the issue or agenda item to which you are speaking.
  4. Remember that you only get one 3-minute comment or hearing session per issue.
  5. Prepare your remarks in advance.
  6. Time yourself and try to end right when (or before) your time is up.
  7. Remember that Public Comment/Public Hearings are part of Open Meetings, and your remarks can be used on-record by the city staff, council, and members of the media.



  1. Sign up for and read the Chamber’s weekly news digest each Tuesday to see what just happened and what is coming up on council meeting agendas via email.
  2. Sign up for and read the City Manager’s Report each Friday afternoon.
  3. Follow issues that matter to you by subscribing to the city’s issue-specific listservs, like COBI Connects, GovDelivery, Nixle (Emergency notifications), Notify Me/News Flash, SeeClickFix, and social media accounts (https://www.bainbridgewa.gov/1028/News-Social-Media)
  4. Take a Survey at Engage Bainbridge which poses questions to projects and policy through surveys (https://cityofbainbridgeisland.civilspace.io/en)
  5. Show up for COBI focus groups, workshops, and open houses.
  6. Join a Citizen Advisory Group  (https://www.bainbridgewa.gov/222/City-Advisory-Groups)
  7. Attend city meetings (in person or via Zoom)
    1. The City Council meets on Tuesdays at City Hall at 6pm. Generally regular business is conducted the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month and study sessions are planned for the first and third Tuesdays as necessary. An overview of the agendas can be found here (https://www.bainbridgewa.gov/1101/City-Council-Agendas) – usually published on Fridays.
    2. The planning commission meets the second and fourth Thursday of the month at City Hall in Council chambers at 6pm. Special meetings are intermittently announced. Agendas can be found here (https://www.bainbridgewa.gov/1101/City-Council-Agendas).
    3. Citizen Advisory Groups meet often, visit the group’s site that you’re more interested in for a complete schedule. Start here. (https://www.bainbridgewa.gov/222/City-Advisory-Groups)
  8. Consider running for City Council yourself…



Council meetings are where the real action is when it comes to making the decisions that impact life on Bainbridge Island. There are the seven council members present, ready to gather the information they need to make informed decisions.

As an Island resident, or as an interested community member, you have the opportunity on an at least twice-monthly basis to join the process and make your voice heard. In today’s post-pandemic times, you can even do that from the comfort of your own home thanks to the wonders of modern technology…




This is the second in a series of Chamber articles that examines our local city, county and state governments aimed at providing information you can use to navigate policy development and implementation and ensure public participation.

In coming articles we’ll look at county and state government operations and delve into how policy is developed and set at each level.

Image credit: Nathan Pilling/Kitsap Sun