After nearly two months of remote meetings, the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly voted on Thursday to convene a special meeting on May 14 to discuss an ordinance that would permanently permit the assembly to meet telephonically during declared disasters.
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic mitigation efforts, the assembly approved an emergency ordinance on March 19 that allowed them to meet telephonically for 60 days. The ordinance is set to expire May 18. At that time, the assembly is set to resume in-person meetings, while maintaining social distancing.
The new ordinance on the table would allow the assembly to automatically transition to remote meetings during declared disasters that keep the assembly from safely meeting in person, without requiring an emergency meeting or emergency ordinance as was necessary in March.
“At this time, the ordinance makes it permanent that if we have a declared disaster — state, federal, local — that we may invoke going to teleconference. The reason would be if it was not feasible for people to travel to have face-to-face meetings, or for the public, for that matter, to get into face-to-face meetings,” said Borough Mayor Bill Roberts.
While some assembly members were in favor of the permanent ordinance, others said it would make it too easy for the assembly to transition to remote meetings, reducing opportunities for public involvement in the governing process.
“Part of my problem is, I don’t think we should make it easy or automatic,” said Assembly Member Scott Arndt, advocating for the assembly to make decisions on remote meetings on a case-by-case basis. “The assemblies in the future need to decide each time, and not for it to be automatic.”
Arndt said he is in favor of allowing the emergency ordinance to expire, and not renewing it. Roberts said that the borough staff is in the process of drafting a COVID-19 mitigation plan, but is not yet prepared to return to in-person meetings.
Since the local disaster declaration, many borough-wide committees have suspended their meetings, including the Planning and Zoning Commission, the Consolidation Committee, the Parks and Recreation Committee, the Solid Waste Advisory Board, and some service area boards.
Speaking in favor of a permanent ordinance allowing for remote meetings, Assembly Member Duane Dvorak said it would allow the borough government to continue functioning in a time of emergency.
“When physical distancing was implemented, I think we realized how important it is that we continue to transact the public’s business in a timely fashion and without delay,” he said.
“If we have another disaster that requires us to meet remotely, I don’t see that we need to necessarily have an emergency ordinance every time,” Dvorak said.
“These things don’t happen very often … But still, having it in our toolbox, having it on our code as a contingency is a good idea.”
But Arndt said that telephonic meetings are difficult to follow and impede public comment.
“If the public is trying to listen to this, it’s as clear as mud what we’re trying to do,” Arndt said.
“To say that we even understand this, let alone the public, is a mistake.”
The ordinance was originally scheduled for a vote on Thursday, but was postponed to a special meeting next week. The motion to postpone passed four to three, with Assembly Members Dvorak, Rebecca Skinner, Julie Kavanaugh and Andy Schroeder in favor. Assembly Members Ardnt, James Turner and Dennis Symmons were opposed.