KINGSPORT - Alderman Valerie Joh said she would like to see some limitations placed on the number of times a member of the Board of Mayor and Aldermen can attend a meeting via telephone.
Kingsport's charter allows members of the BMA to call in to meetings (work session, regular or called) as long as a quorum (four members) is physically present at the meeting. The alderman is counted as being present for the meeting, but not for the purpose of determining a quorum.
This provision in the charter first came about in the mid-1990s, where one member was allowed to call in. The charter was changed again in 1999 to allow up to three members of the BMA to call in to meetings.
The issue came up earlier this month at a BMA work session when Aldermen Ken Marsh and Pat Shull attempted to call in to the meeting. Marsh managed to connect, but city staff were unable to reach Shull. During a July work session, at least one person making a presentation also had to sit near the speaker-phone in order to be heard.
Joh believes the process of calling in is disruptive to the people actually attending the meeting.
"It's disruptive to the aldermen who are there as well as to the public. The person who is not there can't see the reaction, they can't see what's on the screen when we have presentations. It's very difficult to grasp the true picture if something comes up that's an emotional issue," Joh said. "Every once in a while it may be necessary, but I'd just as soon we not have it at all."
Joh said if the BMA is to have a telephone presence at times, there should be some limit on the number of times an alderman can call in - maybe once a year per alderman or no more than one alderman per session.
"If I were elected an alderman and I choose to travel all the time, I could actually call in every single time and never have to attend a meeting, except to be sworn in. Something is wrong with that," Joh said, admitting that would be the worst-case scenario. "That's not what we were elected to do. I understand if it's an important vote and you have to be out of town. But I can understand even not having it."
According to the minutes of the meetings held in the 2007 fiscal year - Shull called in to three meetings, while Marsh and Vice Mayor Ben Mallicote called in to one meeting each. In July of this year, Shull has called in to three meetings, and Marsh called in to two.
"It seems like (Shull and Marsh) call in more than I would rather they do. I'd rather have them be there. I think when you are an elected official you need to be there, but I know there are things that can't be helped," Joh said. "I do think (the issue) ought to be brought up and discussed because it's disruptive."
Shull said the reason he missed the July meetings was because he was out of town on business. Shull said the greater issue is how engaged an alderman is on the issues, rather than whether or not an alderman attends a meeting.
"I think it would only be a matter of concern if an alderman missed a large number of meetings over a period of time," Shull said. "But it's all pretty subjective. You could go to every single meeting but not be prepared and knowledgeable with what you're voting about.
"I could say, in a four year term, you shouldn't miss more than six meetings, and the alderman next to me could say eight meetings. It's really a matter of opinion."
Marsh said he welcomes the discussion but believes the policy is not an issue as far as he is concerned.
"I think the policy is very effective because the aldermen who are interested will call in, and an alderman who isn't interested, won't," Marsh said. "Physically being there doesn't necessarily add anything. You've got people there who've never asked a question in the history of the world.
"Physically being there may or may not add anything to the degree of discussion or quality of the decisions."
City Attorney Mike Billingsley said the BMA could change the phone-in policy either by ordinance or by amending the city's charter.
"If they want it to be forever, then I'd recommend amending the charter," he said.