The Kodiak Island Borough Assembly passed an ordinance that will permit the assembly to meet remotely for the next 60 days, but the decision met some opposition from assembly members.
“Because COVID-19 is an infectious disease, it is prudent for us to conduct meetings without significant personal attendance, and rather to conduct them telephonically and by computer,” said Borough Manager Michael Powers during a special meeting held on Thursday.
Borough Mayor Bill Roberts and Borough Clerk Tara Welinsky were present in person at the assembly chambers. Other assembly members attended the meeting remotely.
The ordinance passed 5-2, with assembly members James Turner and Scott Arndt opposed. Both said the ordinance constituted cowardice on the part of the assembly.
“There’s never going to be more than 50 people in that room during this virus situation, and I think that at this point we still need to meet so the public knows that we are here and available at any time,” Turner said. “I just don’t think that we as public servants should hide in fear.”
Turner noted that in a video released by the Kodiak Emergency Services Council on Wednesday, members of the council were standing in close proximity to each other, violating the 6-foot social distancing rule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control.
“They’re the ones studying the guidelines,” Turner said. “So I don’t understand why we’re getting so fear-mongered over this, and not trying to be public servants like we were voted in to be.”
Arndt spoke in favor of holding in-person meetings to keep the public involved. He suggested using the school district conference room, which is larger and typically used for assembly work sessions.
“We need to keep the public involved,” Arndt said. “I have a problem with us hiding behind this.”
In response to Turner and Arndt, other assembly members voiced support for remote meetings to keep the public safe.
“The CDC calls for social distancing and 6 feet of separation, none of which we could accomplish within the borough assembly chambers,” said Assembly Member Andy Schroeder. “What we need to be doing … is setting an example that this needs to be followed.”
Assembly Member Rebecca Skinner said the decision to have remote meetings was not fearful, but practical.
“I view this as a necessary step to give the assembly additional tools to ensure that the business of the borough can continue,” she said.
Roberts highlighted the importance of protecting Kodiak’s vulnerable population — those who are older than 60 and with preexisting conditions — counting himself among them.
“This isn’t an ordinance so we can hide,” Roberts said. “Out of the six main reasons that you shouldn’t be out in public, I have five of them and I will not be here. If we are going to have regular meetings, you will be doing them without the mayor.”
After the ordinance was passed, assembly members discussed the possibility of shifting the meeting schedule to hold work sessions and meetings during the same day or week. Work sessions and meetings are typically held on alternating Thursdays. However, Powers said the current schedule is written into the borough code. The assembly would have to vote on a change to the code in order to change the meeting schedule. The next work session is scheduled to be held remotely on March 26.
Assembly Member Duane Dvorak urged the assembly to consider applying the ordinance to other borough meetings. Currently, all meetings other than assembly meetings and work sessions have been cancelled until further notice. These include the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Architectural Review Board, the Kodiak Fisheries Work Group, the Parks and Recreation Committee, the Board of Equalization, and the Consolidation Committee.
“They have potentially the ability to do what we’re doing and there may be cases on their agenda that have economic impacts to the community as a whole,” Dvorak said. “Where timeliness equals money to the community and we have a relatively limited construction season and for us to get our budget done, these key boards and committees that feed into our process at the assembly level need to be addressed.”
Powers said that he does not expect the change in meeting format to impact the borough’s budget process. An in-person special budget meeting was cancelled by the borough last week. The deadline for submitting the final borough budget is June.
“The manager’s budget doesn’t have to be submitted until April 30. The fact we have started the budget process early is just a choice,” Powers said, adding that the coronavirus and fluctuations in oil prices have impacted the state budget process, which impacts the borough budget. “I think this is the year to wait and see exactly where the state is going.”
The borough assembly will likely pass a mill rate increase in order to meet the borough’s bond payment commitments and ensure an adequate budget for borough schools, Powers said.
“The economic impact from COVID-19 is going to be felt at the individual and the government level,” he said. “However, those bonds are not waivable, so there’s probably an increase in there somewhere.”
The first remote meeting hit some glitches. Some assembly members appeared by video on the live stream available on the borough website, while others merely called in. The typical invocation, made by Major Dave Davis of the Salvation Army, was skipped. Assembly members stumbled through the pledge of allegiance.
“You all need to get flags,” Powers jokingly told assembly members.