Kenai to record work sessions

Kenai’s city government will now make audio and video recordings not only of official council meetings, but also the less-formal discussions called work sessions.

The Kenai City Council passed a resolution to do so — sponsored by council member Bob Molloy — at its Oct. 19 meeting, with opposing votes from council members Henry Knackstedt and Jim Glendening. Council member Tim Navarre was absent.

Kenai resident Bob McIntosh is an activist who runs the local political website Peninsula Town Crier and has twice run for the city council, citing openness and access issues — including the recording of work sessions — among his chief concerns.

“Everybody out there knows this is something I’ve been harping on for a couple of years, and I’m glad to see it come to light,” McIntosh said.

Though the city had no written policy on electronic recording of meetings, Kenai has usually recorded audio and video of the scheduled twice-monthly meetings of the city council and the planning and zoning commission. Members of both groups make legally-binding votes at these meetings, but meetings without binding votes — such as those of the city’s eight other commissions, whose members only make advisory votes, or work sessions, where no formal votes are taken — generally haven’t been recorded.

Instead, council members, commissioners, and administrators discuss specific issues at work sessions without taking official action. Informal decisions might be reached during these discussions, however, and council members can give direction to city officials during them. These meetings have so far gone unrecorded except in written summaries and minutes.

McIntosh and Molloy said they’ve sometimes been unable to find these written records when researching past city decisions. McIntosh said that even when written records exist, he’s found them uninformative.

“You find hearings, work sessions that have lasted three hours, and you get half a page of summary,” McIntosh said. “You don’t really know what happened.”

The resolution’s opponents said they sought to preserve the valuable informality of work session discussions. Knackstedt said he didn’t “think it’s in the process’s best interest to be recording (work sessions) for years down the road.”

“I recognize that at a council meeting we’re always a little more guarded because this is the official document, what we’re saying here and now at the dais,” Knackstedt said, referring to the platform council members sit on at meetings. “… Having said that, the work sessions are typically — well, they’re not held to the same standard as far as the rules of discussion. Through the process of having the discussion informally, I would hope that we would be thinking freely. Sometimes when you’re thinking outside the box, you don’t necessarily say things that are your opinion — it might be more of a question. I believe that in a recording, if you just take an excerpt of a work session it could be taken way out of context, more so than here at the dais in our official meeting. I think it’s important for work sessions not to be intimidated, to be able to speak quite freely through the process.”

Glendening agreed.

“We’re not coming to conclusions, we’re not deciding anything,” Glendening said. “We’re just trying to get a taste and a feel of what the issue is. From there we would digest that, then render our decision when we come into session. I think for the free flow of information and for the interchange that I’ve seen in work sessions, I think not recording and just having conversations, having the due diligence of our clerk record the theme and theory of the issue, I think that will be sufficient.”

The resolution passed with one amendment, made by Molloy with unanimous agreement, to state that work sessions held outdoors “may not be recorded if not practicable.”

The new policy requires the city clerk to retain electronic records of council meetings and work sessions for six years, and excepts executive sessions and employee candidate interviews. Specifics of the policy — such as whether work session recordings will include both video and audio — will be up to Kenai administrators, Molloy said.

In response to a question from council member Glenese Pettey, Kenai clerk Jamie Heinz said additional recordings wouldn’t be a significant expense for her office, which has most of the needed equipment.

“We might spend an extra $1,000 – $2,000 on adding a few things or upgrading a few things, but those would be incorporated into what’s already in the clerk’s office budget,” Heinz said.

Though it applies only to work sessions including the city council, Molloy wrote in a memo that recording Kenai’s committees and commissions could be the subject of a future policy.

Wednesday’s city council meeting was also the first at which members of the public could make online comments on the items of the twice-monthly meeting agendas, in addition to giving in-person public comments at meetings. The city’s new comment system uses the same provider — Granicus — as the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s website, so those registered as commenters on the borough site will be able to log on to the Kenai site without a new user name and password. Comments will be open on each council agenda up to 3 p.m on the Wednesday of the meeting.

“That should be more convenient for the public to weigh in on certain issues,” Gabriel said.

Reach Ben Boettger at benjamin.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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