Voters, not council, should say attendance important


Sunday, July 23, 2017

The issue: Council recently rejected a proposal to tie council compensation to attendance at council meetings.

Our position: This was the right decision. Attendance at meetings isn’t a financial incentives issue; it’s a political issue. It’s not city council who should decide whether meeting attendance is important. It’s the voters who should.

As much as it might seem to make sense to penalize city councilors for missing council meetings, council was right to reject the idea when it came up recently.

Councilors Anita Hummer and Ray Donnelly had pushed the idea of tying council pay to meeting attendance, believing, apparently, that council members would be more inclined to show up for council’s twice-a-month meetings if they knew their monthly pay would be docked for absences. 

Under Donnelly’s proposal, a councilor who missed a regular council meeting with what he described as an “unexcused” absence could lose 5 percent of their monthly salary, up to 10 percent a month. That would have worked out to about $60 a month from a councilor’s $600-a-month salary. The mayor and mayor pro tem, who are paid a little more, would have lost a little more if they didn’t have an excuse for missing a meeting.

Donnelly and Hummer weren’t pushing for a missed-meeting penalty without cause. A recent report prepared by city officials at Donnelly’s direction showed several councilors had missed a significant number of meetings since the start of 2016. Darius Horton, for example, missed 17 of 69 meetings during that timeframe, or roughly a quarter. Jean Baker, meanwhile, missed 14 meetings during that timeframe, or about one fifth of them. We know Baker has been undergoing cancer treatments, but we’re not sure what Horton’s excuse is.

Moreover, Horton had missed more than half of all finance committee meetings, the report showed. The finance committee is the subpanel of councilors and the mayor who meet ahead of council meetings to discuss emerging issues and make recommendations for how the full council should proceed. The subpanel has been the subject of controversy in recent years, as some councilors who are not members believe it tries to usurp the powers of the full council. For his part, Horton has called for abolishing the finance committee when the new mayor takes office in December.

Rather than do that, however, the new mayor — who typically appoints council members to boards and commissions — should instead return to the finance committee model used by previous mayors as well as the current Pasquotank Board of Commissioners: include all councilors as members. That way, councilors can’t complain that they weren’t aware of an issue that’s come before council at a regular meeting or work session. If they aren’t aware of it, it’s because they missed the finance committee meeting of which they’re a member.

But missing finance committee meetings or other council meetings shouldn’t be cause for withholding a portion of the monthly stipend councilors are paid. Being a city councilor isn’t, after all, a job where you’re required to work so many hours to get compensated. Also, tying pay to attendance assumes that pay is a prime consideration for those who serve on council. We see no evidence that it is. Also, the pay councilors receive isn’t a lot. So docking a councilor $60 a month isn’t likely to solve their absenteeism. Granted, if you don’t show up to meetings, you’re obviously not voting on matters of great importance to the people who elected you to serve.

Horton, who filed for re-election last week, was asked during an interview about his spotty attendance at council meetings. He responded that he always checks the meeting agenda to ensure there are no important votes that will be required. Apparently, if he considers the business to be conducted unimportant, he feels free to skip the meeting.

That, of course, is no way to serve the public. All meetings of council are important, and all votes are important, and all members of council should consider them as such. Often, important business and votes can arise that are not on the agenda — and one vote can be crucial. Attending meetings is, after all, one of the things you sign up for when you run for council. If you can’t attend the meetings, you shouldn’t run.

There’s obviously a level of frustration for those councilors who do show up for meetings when their peers, who frequently are absent, show up at later meetings and want to revisit an issue that’s already been discussed or decided.

A good case in point was the discussion council held the week before last on continuing to employ a consulting firm to conduct an audit of the city’s utility bills. Council voted at a work session in June to hire the Cary office of Raftelis Financial Consultants for $35,000 to ensure customer charges during the recent utility billing crisis are accurate. Three members of council were missing from that meeting, and two of them — Michael Brooks and Johnnie Walton — decided to revisit the decision during council’s regular meeting earlier this month.

The discussion at that meeting, which at one point included a motion by Walton and Horton to suspend Raftelis’ contract, eventually ended with council agreeing to stick with the audit after those making the motion realized the consultants were entitled to payment for work they’d already performed. Had Brooks and Walton attended the work session in June, there probably wouldn’t have been the interminable discussion this month about suspending Raftelis’ contract. 

But that said, docking Walton’s and Brooks’ pay for missing a meeting isn’t going to solve council’s absentee problem. This isn’t a financial incentives issue; it’s a political issue. As such, it will be up to voters to decide how much councilor absenteeism from meetings they can tolerate.