Olentangy Valley News

Should AWOL council members get the boot?

Powell leaders debate proposal that could allow penalties for absenteeism

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Powell City Council members say a proposed policy would hold elected officials accountable for frequent absenteeism.

The policy will be placed before voters as one of seven amendments to the Powell city charter in May or November.

This month, council is finalizing the proposed revisions and ballot language and will select a ballot date. No proposals have been finalized; council was expected to continue the discussion at its meeting Tuesday, Feb. 5.

The charter is the city's primary legislative document that establishes the powers of local government.

The proposed changes include a number of procedural and housekeeping updates.

But the suggested amendment regarding absenteeism at biweekly council meetings -- which would give council new power to censure members who miss too many meetings, or even remove them from office -- sparked a debate when council reviewed the amendments at a meeting Jan. 29.

Councilwoman Sara Marie Brenner was absent from the meeting.

The rest of council agreed the legislative body should have the power to declare a seat vacant if a member is absent for two consecutive calendar months -- equal to four consecutive meetings.

Other potential punishments could be a public reprimand, fine, forfeiture of pay or suspension from committee assignments.

"Frankly, if we leave it at two months, it doesn't much matter if you miss those meetings because of work commitments or you're in a coma at the hospital. You're still not able to perform the functions of the office," Mayor Richard Cline said.

Councilman Mike Crites noted other nearby communities have stricter rules. In Dublin, a council member's seat is forfeited after three consecutive absences.

In the past, absent council members have been excused as a matter of course at the beginning of each meeting. Now, council is debating whether any absences should be excused.

Councilman Brian Lorenz said allowing excused absences makes any effort to curb absenteeism toothless.

"Who's going to reject (an excuse) if somebody says they have a temperature?" Lorenz said.

Council members agreed expulsion from council need not be the automatic result of four consecutive absences -- simply that council should have the option once that mark is reached.

Councilman Jon Bennehoof said exceptions could be made for members who are absent due to work commitments or other conflicts, but who make an effort to participate electronically in council discussions via email or other means.

He said he might face such a situation himself this year when work will require him to travel for a two-month period.

Lorenz said council could take special situations into consideration.

"There are people who want to be elected, but there's a job conflict that comes up for 30 or 45 days. That's understandable in the course of a four-year term," he said. "I think you should excuse that."

Crites warned against making it too easy to oust members for any reason, adding: "If Councilman X runs and gets elected by the citizens of this community, why should we overturn that decision lightly?"

Other proposed amendments discussed at the Jan. 29 meeting include revisions to:

* Extend term lengths for members of the city's Planning and Zoning Commission and Board of Zoning Appeals from three to four years.

* Streamline rules for seeking and awarding contracts for public improvements.

* Establish a review of the charter at least once every 10 years.

* Clarify the procedure for the filing and consideration of a referendum on a city ordinance.

* Clarify the rights of council to discuss confidential information in private executive sessions.

* Align the city's conflict of interest policy for city officials with corresponding state laws.

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