Starting in August, Kenai City Council members who are ill or attending to an immediate family member who is ill can leave their seats empty for up to four months per year as long as they dial in.
In November, the council agreed to allow members to attend two meetings per year over the telephone, but an ordinance passed at Wednesday’s meeting allows for attendance of two additional meetings telephonically.
The change was introduced by council member Bob Molloy after fellow member Mike Boyle needed to travel to Seattle to be with his son, Gabe, who is undergoing treatment for leukemia.
The treatment his 10-year-old son is undergoing is not available in Alaska, and is expected to continue for eight to 10 months.
Before the ordinance passed, however, council members and the public discussed a tangle of concerns over how it might be abused or weaken participation.
“I am hesitant to support this bill watered down or not,” said council member Joe Moore.
Moore said his reluctance was due, in part, to his own experience of attending a meeting over the phone.
“I think telephonic participation is poor at best,” he said.
He said equipment failures prevented him from receiving the paperwork members attending the meeting in person had before them and it made it difficult for him to participate in a meaningful way.
Participating in a meeting is about more than making a vote, he said.
But others, including Boyle, said increasing the number of telephone meetings would actually help them be better representatives.
“This bill wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for me,” he said. “Although this isn’t about me, this is about any individual who is elected. And we have a duty and a responsibility to our constituency to allow their representatives to be available.”
Boyle said while his son is receiving treatments he can still make it to one meeting a month in person, and that by allowing him to attend more meetings by phone, the ordinance allows him more than just the bare minimum in participation.
“If I am allowed to work telephonically I can make it to that many more meetings,” he said.
Typically there are two meetings each month and council members are required to attend at least half of them during any three-month period.
Possible abuses also were addressed.
Council member Rick Ross said he agreed and that the democratic process would discourage abuses.
“I also have faith in my fellow council members that they won’t abuse the privilege,” he said. “And I think that if happens, it will be corrected by the electorate.”
Kristine Schmidt, a Kenai resident, said it would only be fair to try and accommodate members who are suffering due to circumstances outside of their control.
“This can happen to anyone,” she said. “No one asks to suffer an illness. They can’t control the timing or the onset. Our community does not have the sophisticated medical treatments that some people need to treat terminal illnesses. And those people frequently have to leave the state to get adequate treatment.”
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