Assembly considers restricting telephone participation for members

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is considering an ordinance that would set additional guidelines for how members can participate by phone.

Currently, if an assembly member is out of town or sick, they can phone in and participate via teleconference line set up by the borough clerk. In recent months, many of the assembly’s meetings have had less than a full panel of members — former member Brandii Holmdahl moved to Boston for work and attended several meetings by phone before resigning her seat, and assembly member Willy Dunne had to participate by phone several times in fall 2016.

However, the ordinance — sponsored by Assembly President Kelly Cooper and assembly vice president Wayne Ogle — obliquely targets assembly member Paul Fischer. Fischer has been physically absent from many of the meetings throughout the winter, but attended by telephone.

The borough clerks set up a speakerphone with a microphone for those participating by telephone, but it’s not always a seamless connection. There’s often miscommunication and interruption between those present and those on the phone, and calls will occasionally be dropped. When the assembly was interviewing candidates this spring to replace several members that resigned, one of the standard questions was whether the candidate could commit to attending all meetings in person rather than on the phone.

The ordinance would require five days’ notice before attending a meeting telephonically. After a member attends three meetings telephonically in a legislative year — which turns over Nov. 1 — any future attendances by telephone have to go through the assembly. If the rest of the assembly votes that the teleconference is not for good cause — like medical care or a family emergency, for example — then the member will be shut out and the absence will be considered unexcused, according to a memo to the assembly from Cooper and Ogle. By borough code, after three unexcused absences, the assembly member can be booted from his or her seat.

“Being physically present during assembly meetings is very important, as it allows for significantly improved communication, both verbal and non-verbal, with the other assembly members, the mayor, staff and members of the public,” the memo states. “Everyone involved loses valuable aspects of the proceedings when members attend telephonically.”

Fischer expressed some frustration at the intent of the ordinance during the assembly’s Policies and Procedures Committee meeting on April 4.

“We’re shortchanging the constituents if we say, ‘You just can’t participate today,’” he said.

Carrie Henson of Soldotna said in her public testimony that she supported the ordinance because Fischer had been absent from so many meetings and said the rumor was that he was spending the winter in Arizona.

“He has been participating telephonically but that process is cumbersome at best,” she said. “Background noises from the audio (are) distracting, there is no way to know if the assembly person is paying attention, and it causes confusion when voting. I have attended more assembly meetings than he has.”

Fischer fired back that he was Outside for medical care.

“As I remember, that was a medical situation, not that I’m going down there for a vacation in the wintertime,” he said.

Kasilof resident George Pierce, who regularly attends and comments at borough assembly meetings, agreed with Fischer.

“Mr. Fischer is my representative — he’s not everybody’s representative, he’s Kasilof’s,” he said during his public testimony to the assembly. “The constituents out there elected him. For eight of you people to sit up there and say, ‘Well, if you’re not going to attend our meeting, we’re going to throw you off,’ well, let’s remind you that he was elected by me, not by you.”

Lara McGinnis of Ninilchik, which is also in Fischer’s district, said she supported the ordinance because she knew how frustrating it is to try to accomplish things with a board when people were not physically present.

“As a constituent, I would say yes, if you agreed to serve office, you agreed to be here,” she said.

The assembly approved the introduction of the ordinance on the consent agenda and did not discuss it further at the April 4 meeting. It will come up for public hearing at the May 2 meeting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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