Council debates emergency call-in option

Published 11:30 am Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Franklin City School Board recently used a new state legislation to have an absent member call in for an important vote back during the summer, and even more recently the Franklin City Council talked about setting up such a policy.

Taylor Williams, who is the attorney for both the city and the school board, said at that meeting the board member in question was simply called via cell phone and was placed on speaker phone near one of the microphones so that she could hear and speak opinions about what was going on for the issues she wished to be counted as present for electronically. This was done after she had stated to the school board why she was absent, and after they accepted her reason, they voted unanimously to allow her to be present.

Williams said that statute, as written, allows each board member two meetings a calendar year in which they can utilize it. As written, there is no policy concerning a long-term illness.

The toughest thing, however, is the vagueness of the definitions of what is an acceptable emergency or personal matter. Council would have to pretty much make a gut decision as it comes up, or sit down and determine before drafting the policy on what would or would not constitute an acceptable reason for not being at council chambers.

“There is direction in the state code into what constitutes an emergency or personal matter,” Williams said. “There would have to be some guidance to determine what is going to be fair for everybody involved.”

Ward 6 Councilman Frank Rabil said he did think it would be difficult without further defining emergency or personal matter.

“I think it would be a difficult thing for us to sit up here and judge each other without some specificity around that,” he said.

While Ward 2’s Benny Burgess said a cell phone would work, he also knows that cell service is spotty, and he’d prefer a more permanent solution if they were to do it.

Ward 4’s Mona Murphy agreed with both Burgess and Rabil, adding that she didn’t think people would try to abuse it. But if someone did use it, it’d be tough.

“The fact that the body must approve the reason,” Murphy said. “I think that will be a very hard call to disapprove.”

Vice Mayor Barry Cheatham said an emergency situation would be easier to define than personal.

“An emergency situation I think we can work with,” Cheatham said. “But with personal, it could be any reason. Is it because you just want to take a week off? I don’t know.”

Murphy thought that this council had a good enough working relationship that they would be fair with each other on personal reasons.

Ward 5 Councilwoman Mary Hilliard was concerned about picking and choosing what pieces of state legislation to use, and she felt like they ought to adopt it. But Williams eased those concerns by saying that there is nothing to this legislation that obligates council to adopt.

Burgess also worried about the potential for what could happen if council were to decline an absent member’s reasoning for not being present.

“Could they appeal to the attorney general and say we did something wrong?” he asked.

Williams said like any other majority vote that the council passes, that he believes it would be upheld at the state level.

City Manager Randy Martin said he wondered how beneficial this would be.

“This council has operated for a long time without this ability, and it has never been a problem,” he said. “Is this really something you want to do unless it becomes a problem? We have had a situation where a member was out for an extended period of time due to health reasons. But, even with this option in place, I am not sure it would have helped because of his physical capabilities.”

Martin also said he grappled with the idea of what it might do to this council, or a future council, if they are put into a position of having to decide on whether or not their peers’ excuses are valid or not.

“For the most part, attendance has been good, and I don’t see that changing,” he said.

When Mayor Raystine Johnson-Ashburn asked if there was anyone present who did not wish to entertain this option at a future date, no one spoke up. And so, she said that they would put together a work session in October to discuss clarifying emergency and personal excuses for using this statute for participating and voting electronically in a meeting when not physically present at council chambers.