Showing up: Is it half the battle for city councils?

City councils seem to have different ideas on attendance

By Ray Legendre, Columbian staff writer

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If you attended a Vancouver City Council regular meeting in 2011, chances are you observed the entire council in attendance.

The opposite was true for several Clark County city councils.

Battle Ground, Camas, Washougal and Woodland each registered full attendance less than 50 percent of the time at regular meetings where votes were cast, according to public records reviewed by The Columbian. The numbers do not take into account special meetings, workshops, or consent meetings.

Council members across Clark County agree on the importance of attending regular council meetings -- that’s why they were elected, after all. The importance of every council member attending each regular meeting is another matter.

Some view having a full council present as vital to having fruitful discussions and making informed votes on issues important to residents. Others consider the primary goal to have a quorum, which is more than half the members present, so the meeting can proceed.

Council members have jobs, take vacations and get sick, just like everyone else, several officials noted.

Overall, Clark County councils had full attendance at 61 percent of regular meetings in 2011. Council members’ overall attendance rate was 92 percent, based on a formula that divided regular meetings they attended by those they could have attended. The figures included the Woodland City Council, which represents residents in Clark and Cowlitz counties.

Both Woodland and Camas had six regular council meetings where two or more members were absent. Woodland and Battle Ground each rescheduled a meeting due to lack of a quorum.

Political science professor Mark Stephan of Washington State University Vancouver cautioned against labeling cities like Battle Ground, Camas, or Woodland as having attendance prob

lems. Some city councils put a higher emphasis on full turnout than others, he said, echoing statements made by council members.

“On the face of it, there is reason to think you want everyone there,” Stephan said. “It doesn’t mean it’s crippling or highly problematic if, as part of the norms of the group, they’ve figured out how to make it work without having everyone there all the time.”

These same absences might lead some residents of a community to question whether the council member missing meetings took the job seriously enough, Stephan added.

The 80-percenters

Without pause, Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow rattled off reasons his city’s council members missed meetings in 2011. One was trouble with the health of a councilman’s wife. Another was a councilman’s having to serve on a board he’d been named to.

Onslow then paused for the next question.

Ridgefield’s five-member council had three combined absences in 2011 -- one fewer than Vancouver’s council, which includes six members and Mayor Tim Leavitt.

Onslow spoke about his councilors’ exemplary attendance record in the same manner an absence-free student would explain attending class with a cold. They get a charge out of learning, and they fear missing anything important, he explained.

“Our backgrounds are so different, we feed off each other and appreciate the information each other gives,” Onslow said. He noted, “When you miss something, you might miss out on some of the feelings of the people that are there and reports that are given.”

Missing Vancouver City Council meetings is not recommended, Leavitt joked Friday, because “The Columbian would be on us like stink on you-know-what.”

Vancouver’s council represents 150,000 more residents than Ridgefield’s. The issues the members discuss at meetings might differ in scope, but their reasons for attending those meetings are similar.

“It seems we’re never short on pressing and important matters in Vancouver, being the second-largest city in the region,” Leavitt said, noting that the city is fortunate to have council members who take their jobs “very seriously.”

La Center Mayor Jim Irish -- whose council was also fully present for more than 80 percent of meetings in 2011 -- did not return calls seeking comment for this story.

The 40-percenters

A more-blemished attendance record does not necessarily mean indifference or inactivity for a council. Just ask Camas Mayor Scott Higgins.

He guessed the city’s entire council showed up at 90 percent of meetings in 2011. When told the number was below 50 percent (45.8 percent, to be precise), he expressed surprise.

“Maybe it’s because we’re getting business done,” he said.

Camas’ council had 19 absences in 2011. Three Camas council members -- Tim Hazen, Steve Hogan and Melissa Smith -- had four absences apiece.

Most cities have a policy that states a council member who has three unexcused absences in a row is subject to dismissal. Camas is more informal. Members alert city officials when they will be absent and their absence is excused. Neither Hazen, Hogan, nor Smith had three straight absences.

Smith described Camas’ council as “a well-oiled machine” that does not disagree a lot and trusts the city’s staff. She attributed her missed meetings to a back condition. She opposed members’ missing meetings except for legitimate reasons such as health concerns or job-related matters.

Smith said Thursday she planned to bring up attendance during the council’s retreat Friday and Saturday.

Smith’s concerns are also felt in Battle Ground and Washougal -- two cities where full attendance for regular council meetings charted below 46 percent.

Battle Ground cancelled its Sept. 19 meeting due to a lack of quorum. Council members informed city staff that job-related issues, vacations and illness forced them to miss the meeting, said spokeswoman Bonnie Gilberti, noting it was the first time in five years she could recall a regular meeting’s being cancelled due to lack of quorum.

Whether one member misses or several members, the impact is felt, said Mike Ciraulo, a former Battle Ground mayor and current councilman.

“It is frustrating to not have all council members there,” said Ciraulo, who missed three meetings in 2011. “Whether I agree or disagree with them, they are duly elected by the citizenry.”

The Battle Ground council appointed Lisa Walters to replace Ciraulo this month. Walters missed five of the city’s first 14 regular meetings in 2011, before attending the final eight. She listed lingering health issues from a motorcycle wreck, the birth of her grandchild and a vacation as reasons for absences.

“We’re not robots,” Walters said. “People miss meetings.”

Council absences have not resulted in cancelled meetings in Washougal, but they have resulted in the early finish of one.

Councilmen Jon Russell and Michael Delavar walked out of an April meeting after the council voted 3-2 to form a committee to review the city’s ethics policy. The two men defended their walkout as a way to protect the vote and opinions of two council members who were not present.

Russell missed four regular meetings due to job- and family-related activities. Councilman Rod Morris, who was defeated in his reelection bid, also missed four meetings.

“Four out of 24 is not bad,” Russell said.

The 30-percenter

Russell’s absences paled in comparison to those of former Woodland councilman Aaron Christopherson. Actually, everyone’s did.

Christopherson missed 12 regular meetings prior to his resignation in September. He had four unexcused absences, when he failed to notify city staff or council members he would not be present. He has not returned phone calls from The Columbian about his attendance record before or after his resignation.

Christopherson’s porous attendance rate -- he attended fewer than 30 percent of regular meetings -- helped push Woodland’s full-attendance numbers under 40 percent.

It also served as a cautionary tale for others considering running for council, Woodland councilman Benjamin Fredricks said. Unless you are willing to surrender two nights per month for four years, not to mention many other nights for a myriad of other meetings, city council is probably not for you.

“Aaron served his community well,” Fredricks said. “At the end, he was not mentally in it anymore.”

Woodland cancelled its Oct. 3 council meeting -- the first following Christopherson’s resignation -- due to a lack of a quorum. To hear Fredricks tell it, the city went silent that night.

“City council members are the voice of the people,” Fredricks said. “When one of the voices is not there it is not the full voice of the people.”

Andrea Damewood contributed to this report.Ray Legendre: 360-735-4517; http://facebook.com/raylegend;http://twitter.com/col_smallcities;ray.legendre@columbian.com.