Assembly might quit phoning it in

New ordinance would prohibit attending meetings telephonically

Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Having absent members participate in Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meetings by telephone ought to be prohibited except in cases of emergency, says Assemblyman Pete Sprague, who has proposed banning the procedure.

Ordinance 2007-37, introduced at the Nov. 20 meeting, is scheduled for a public hearing Jan. 8.

Although state law permits members to attend meetings by teleconference, in practice it can prove problematic.

Often, the absentee member cannot hear other assembly members or testifying members of the public adequately, and vice versa, requiring frequent repetition and clarifications. It can be especially hard following procedural matters during the course of debate and amendment of legislation.

On the other hand, it is a procedure rarely used. According to Borough Clerk Sherry Biggs, it was used just in one meeting in 2004, again only once in 2005, and not at all during 2006.

Former Assemblywoman Deb Germano of Homer, attended by telephone for six meetings earlier this year when her employment took her to remote parts of the state. Because of that, however, she resigned her seat last summer effective Oct. 1. Assemblyman Bill Smith, who won the Oct. 2 election, has filled her seat.

Assemblywoman Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge, is the only other member to attend by phone this year, and only once.

"It (the privilege) has not been abused excessively anytime in the last few years," Biggs said.

Is the ordinance a solution in search of a problem? Not according to Sprague, who believes important decisions regarding public policy are best made in person.

"I believe that it is in the best interest of the public, the administration, and the assembly that assembly members be required to attend meetings in person," Sprague said in a memo to his colleagues.

While he would prefer in-person participation, Sprague noted that other members might have different opinions, and suggested the ordinance could be amended to limit the amount of teleconferences permitted by each assembly member.

Another idea, he suggested, would be to allow attendance by teleconference, but require members to be present in chambers to cast votes.

Hal Spence can be reached at hspence@ptialaska.net



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