A resolution to mandate electronic-only distribution of borough assembly documents failed during a regular meeting on Thursday, after some assembly members raised concerns about accessibility.
The motion was originated by Mayor Bill Roberts, who said the distribution of paper copies is time consuming and burdensome for the borough clerk’s office.
The borough assembly voted in 2011 to stop using hard-copy paper packets and instead use iPads for electronic distribution of meeting materials. Since then, almost all assembly members have accessed materials through borough-issued iPads and communicated about formal borough topics via email.
However, Assembly Member Scott Arndt continues to demand paper copies of all borough materials. Arndt does not have internet access in his home, and does not make use of the borough-issued iPad or a personal computer.
The borough clerk’s office has worked with Arndt to print paper packets for him, review his assembly member email inbox at regular intervals, and print emails for him. But staff have reported that these tasks are time consuming for an already stretched-thin office.
“This appears that I’m attacking one member of the assembly. I am not doing that. I’m trying to relieve some burden from the clerk’s office. Because it is a burden. It’s a bigger burden than any of us really realized,” Roberts said during the Thursday meeting, adding that relying on paper copies often means that Arndt does not access borough documents in a timely manner. “It’s almost impossible to keep up with paper printed updates, while everything else is going electronically.”
Arndt expressed vehement opposition to electronic communications, saying he has a physical limitation that prevents him from looking at screens.
“This isn’t going to work for me. To me, the whole idea of government is equity for all. It’s not the majority forcing potentially a minority that has some issues and problems,” Arndt said. “I have an extreme eye fatigue problem that I shouldn’t even have to bring up here. We don’t want to go down this road, ladies and gentleman, because you will pay for my attorney fees and yours.”
In a previous meeting, Arndt said that when he has needed to use a computer, he has used computers in the Kodiak Public Library. However, since the coronavirus pandemic forced a prolonged library closure, he has not had access to a computer. He continues to rely on the clerk’s office to print out paper copies of borough materials, even as the borough building has closed to the public to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The resolution to mandate electronic-only communication failed, with four assembly members voting against the motion and three assembly members voting in favor of it.
Assembly Members Arndt, James Turner, Julie Kavanaugh and Dennis Symmons voted against the motion. Assembly Members Rebecca Skinner, Duane Dvorak and Andy Schroeder voted in favor of it.
Those opposed to the motion said it would impede access to public office for Kodiak community members with physical impairments.
“We can have multiple issues with this. Let’s say somebody is blind. Does that mean they are not eligible to be an elected official in the borough of Kodiak? Are we not going to accommodate those that have problems or issues?” Kavanaugh said.
But those in favor of the motion said that other solutions could be found for assembly members with disabilities that would not place onerous requirements on the clerk’s office.
“I think there are reasonable accommodations that can be made to provide a printer for them at the borough building, where they can print out a packet,” Skinner said. “This is creating a significant burden on the clerk’s office, and I am very concerned about that, because we have had a lot of turnover in the clerk’s office.”
The borough clerk, Tara Welinsky, is leaving her position with the borough this month after only one year in the role. Skinner said the borough assembly should be thoughtful about the clerk’s office workload when the three-person office goes down to two staff members.
Skinner said that as long as some assembly members receive borough materials in paper, there needs to be a firm deadline for submitting topics for discussion in borough meetings.
“Right now we have two different channels of communication, and it’s not always clear who received what and when they received it,” she said.
Skinner noted that the borough already decided to move to electronic means of communication in 2011.
“So that’s not the decision we’re making tonight,” she said. “What we’re deciding is what is a reasonable accommodation for one individual, and who should bear the burden of that. I’m very concerned about putting that entire burden onto the clerk’s office.”
Schroeder compared the electronic communication requirement to the requirement that all assembly members attend the meeting in person.
“This isn’t about an individual person or their preferences,” Schroeder said.
“This is an important thing we need to do for the clerk’s office. It’s our responsibility as public servants to make sacrifices. If somebody didn’t have a driver’s license or didn’t have a car, unfortunately I wouldn’t be voting public dollars to bring them here to an in-person meeting. If somebody couldn’t stay up late, I wouldn’t vote to have meetings earlier, just for that level of inclusivity. We can’t afford to be waiting hand and foot on assembly members.”
Schroeder urged assembly members who require paper copies to print the assembly packets independently, rather than relying on the clerk’s office for the service.
“If somebody does want to read their printed packet, they have the right to print it themselves. But I think that treating the clerk’s office as a secretarial or clerical office for our needs is not what they are there for. Their time could be better spent doing records retention, dealing with public inquiries. I think we need to make this sacrifice for them,” he said.
“This is a decision based on modernizing our processes. It’s a decision of efficient government. It’s a decision of fairness.”