Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Brent Johnson presides over a meeting of the assembly on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Brent Johnson presides over a meeting of the assembly on Tuesday, Nov. 10, 2021 in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Assembly considers nixing in-person meetings in Homer, Seward

Members discussed if the meetings were necessary with public Zoom access available.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is debating whether or not to hold in-person meetings in Seward and Homer next year. The assembly has historically met in Homer and Seward once a year, but stopped doing so in 2020 and 2021 due the COVID-19 pandemic.

The borough assembly incorporated Zoom technology into their regular meetings during the COVID-19 pandemic, as did many other peninsula municipalities. The technology allows users not only to watch assembly meetings in real time, but also to participate in meetings remotely.

Assembly members who opposed holding the meetings in person said Zoom has increased the capacity for remote participation in assembly meetings, while those in favor said they allow assembly members to make important in-person connections.

Assembly President Brent Johnson said during a Tuesday meeting of the assembly’s Policies and Procedures Committee that a former assembly reached out to request that the assembly hold a meeting in Homer next year. Johnson said he is OK with holding in-person meetings in Homer and Seward, but that Zoom has improved public access and made it easier for borough clerks to run meetings.

“If we decide to just hold the meetings by Zoom, that’s satisfactory with me,” Johnson said. “But if there’s people in Homer and in Seward that want those meetings there, I’m also very willing to support them and do that.”

Assembly member Cindy Ecklund, who represents the east peninsula, said holding in-person meetings in other peninsula cities allows assembly members to make personal connections with people they may not see on a regular basis and to tour borough facilities they may not otherwise.

Assembly member Jesse Bjorkman pushed back, saying he would welcome an invitation from any of the peninsula’s communities to visit even if the assembly does not hold a meeting there. Assembly Vice President Brent Hibbert similarly said that he did not think holding meetings in Seward and Homer would be an effective use of the assembly’s time.

Ecklund said Seward Mayor Christy Terry supports the assembly having a meeting in Seward, while assembly member Lane Chesley, who represents Homer, said Homer Mayor Ken Castner is “ambivalent.” Chesley, who chairs the assembly’s policies and procedures committee, said he thinks Zoom is not the same as holding meetings in person.

“Even though content is available on Zoom, it’s still not the same thing as being able to meet, particularly … during things, where conversations can happen and networks can be built and enhanced and strengthened,” Chesley said. “There’s more to it than just Zooming into a meeting.”

Assembly member Tyson Cox pointed out that if the assembly held meetings in other peninsula communities, that same Zoom access may not be available. Kenai Peninsula Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship said she could reach out to those communities to see whether or not Zoom services could still be available.

The assembly considered postponing the adoption of their 2022 meeting schedule, but Blankenship said the schedule is needed now to help plan for reservation of chamber space next year. The body ultimately voted to approve the schedule of meetings, with the understanding that meeting locations can be changed at a later date.

“I will happily work with Clerk Blankenship on getting Seward and Homer added to our meeting schedule,” Ecklund said during her closing comments.

The assembly will meet once more in 2021, on Dec. 7. The first meeting in 2022 will be on Jan. 4, according to the schedule approved by the assembly Tuesday.

Tuesday’s full meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly can be viewed on the borough’s website at kpb.us.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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