Assembly passes rules for attending meetings by phone

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members may be blocked from participating in meeting telephonically in the future if the other members decide it’s not merited.

The assembly passed an ordinance setting rules on how and when assembly members can participate via telephone. When assembly members are out of town or have a scheduling conflict, they sometimes phone in to participate in the meeting via teleconference line. If they don’t, sometimes votes can shake out differently, as the assembly can proceed with business as long as more than half of the members are present.

Since summer 2016, the assembly has often had empty seats at its regular meetings, with some absent and others participating by telephone. The timing of the ordinance, though, comes after assembly member Paul Fischer participated in a number of meetings throughout the winter telephonically.

The initial version, sponsored by Assembly President Kelly Cooper and assembly member Wayne Ogle, would have allowed for telephonic participation if the assembly member informs the borough clerk at least five days before the meeting. If the member had attended at least three meetings telephonically in a calendar year, the assembly could vote on whether the person could participate as long as the absence was for good cause, such as extended medical care or family emergency.

“We believe that it is important as elected official that assembly members make reasonable efforts to attend in person every assembly meeting to properly fulfill their duties as an elected official,” Cooper and Ogle wrote in a memo to the assembly.

If the assembly voted not to allow the person to participate, it would be counted as an unexcused absence under the original ordinance. Under existing borough code, after three unexcused absences, the member can be removed from the assembly. It would not apply to special meetings of the assembly and is not retroactive.

The unexcused absence designation was the main source of contention. During the Polices and Procedures Committee meeting Tuesday, Ogle and Cooper both clarified that it was intended to be punitive or overly scrutinizing. Cooper said the technology available to the borough made it not very practical to participate in a lot of meetings by phone. Ogle clarified during committee that it wouldn’t go into effect until the next legislative year, which turns over Nov. 1 for the assembly.

“There’s no thought or effort to be intrusive as far as what the details about (a medical absence),” Ogle said. “We all are people of integrity up here, and if it’s stated that that is the cause, I believe that would be normally acceptable.”

Assembly member Dale Bagley offered an amendment removing the “unexcused” from the original ordinance, to allow for discretion depending on the circumstances.

“That’s all this amendment does, it just leaves it in the purview of the president to decide whether it’s excused or unexcused,” he said.

Fischer, who said his multiple telephonic participations in the last few months were because of medical needs while he was Outside, said during committee he would rather assembly members simply request an excused absence before they leave if they know they’ll be gone at the next meeting.

“That’s what we do in the Legislature — you ask for it, and it’s approved,” he said.

The assembly didn’t have much discussion about it at the general meeting, and it passed unanimously.

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

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