This year, no one played more hooky from the Missoula City Council’s regular meetings than Councilwoman Caitlin Copple, who missed nearly 24 percent of the time.
The best attendance record in 2012? That goes to council president Marilyn Marler, who represents Ward 6 and runs the Monday agendas when Mayor John Engen is absent. She missed just one Monday meeting this year.
Since January, councilors have held 38 of their Monday night meetings, and most members showed up at least 89 percent of the time, according to records on the city website. Attendance isn’t mandatory, said Marler, and a requirement would be hard to impose since these local elected officials aren’t in office full time, and they have jobs and families.
“But I think the professional thing is to be there as much as absolutely possible,” Marler said.
The council won’t meet as a group again until 2013, but in any given week, much of the work councilors do takes place outside the regular Monday night meetings. Wednesday committee meetings often are meaty, and Engen, who presides over the Monday meetings and was once a councilman himself, said the job goes around the clock.
“These folks work mighty hard, and they bear a lot of responsibility in the committee work they do, the thinking they do, the reading they do, the listening they do, the fact that they wear a council hat when they’re out and about,” Engen said. “That’s a lot of time on the job. So while it’s technically part time, to a certain degree they’re engaged full time.”
Engen said he hasn’t noticed “particular absenteeism,” and in fact, he’d rather have a council member who is gone a little more but engaged a little more, too. And he said it’s not absences themselves but handling them well that’s important.
“This is really about being responsible. So you let your colleagues know you may not be available. You’re aware of issues. You figure out ways to make accommodations when the issues are of particular import. And you make it work, and I think that’s what folks try to do,” Engen said.
Councilors Adam Hertz, Jon Wilkins and Mike O’Herron each attended 35 of the meetings; Councilors Jason Wiener, Alex Taft, Dick Haines and Ed Childers have gone to 34; Councilors Dave Strohmaier and Cynthia Wolken have been at 33; Councilman Bob Jaffe has been at 32; and Councilwoman Copple attended 29.
This year, Engen attended 33 of the 38 meetings, with Marler overseeing the ones in his absence. Since he was elected to the council in 2001 and then mayor in 2005 and 2009, Engen estimated he has been to roughly 500 council meetings in all.
Copple made it to 29 meetings this year, her first as a councilor, but she’s also undertaken an ambitious and time-consuming initiative outside the Monday meetings. To pursue economic growth in Missoula, the Ward 4 representative launched and spearheaded the economic development subcommittee of the council, and she said the group has completed a survey and plans to make recommendations during the upcoming budget season.
Her constituents elected her knowing she has another job, Copple said. She works for the Pride Foundation, the largest foundation focused on LGBT, or lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, issues in the world, and her regional work takes her away from Missoula for a full week each quarter.
“It does require me to miss some meetings for sure,” Copple said. “I feel like I’m 29 years old, City Council pays $12,700 a year, and that’s not enough for a person to live on. So it’s important for me to have two jobs.”
She estimates she works 20 to 30 hours a week on council business and another 50 to 60 hours on her day job, which has a flexible schedule that allows her to take on responsibilities in city government.
Copple is one of the youngest members on the council, and Engen said he remembers a time when the body was made up mostly of older retired people. He said rather than perfect attendance, he prefers having the depth and diversity that’s currently on the council.
“I think it really reflects a broader cross section of Missoula than it did when I was first on council, both in terms of gender and age and career and sort of where folks are in life,” Engen said.
Marler said absences are more inconvenient than they are problematic, and only on occasion does she hear complaints about them.
“It comes up sometimes just out of frustration, but there are 12 of us, so it doesn’t mean that the world is going to fall apart if one of us is absent now and again,” Marler said.
In fact, she said she herself will be gone for several meetings the first part of 2013 because she plans to travel to Vietnam. Her trip is part of a professional women’s exchange program through the U.S. Department of State and the Mansfield Center at the University of Montana.
In her absence, Jaffe will fill in as head of the council since he’s vice president. Jaffe had the second most absences this year, but he also produces a well-read weekly summary of committee meetings, and he’s the chairman of the Plat, Annexation and Zoning Committee, which has been busy working on new regulations for accessory dwelling units.
“The council meetings themselves are like, the least of what we do. They’re generally just a formality,” Jaffe said. “The bulk of what we do is committee.”
And unless he’s out of town, Jaffe is at all the committees, he said. The PAZ committee alone usually runs a couple of hours a week, and Jaffe said he attends an hourlong staff meeting every week as well.
Typically, the council meets the first four Mondays of the month, minus holidays, but the mayor and councilors have talked about cutting out one or even a couple of meetings a month. Marler said this year, the council has taken care of a lot of its business on the consent agenda – items that were ironed out in committee, unanimously approved in committee and then typically approved in one fell swoop by the full council.
If the council does want to drop down to just three meetings a month, Marler said it would be important to remain flexible and allow four a month if needed. When a lot of construction was taking place before the economy collapsed, the council was busy with many subdivision requests, which butt up against legal deadlines.
It probably wouldn’t have been realistic to reduce the number of meetings then, but Copple offered another suggestion for increasing attendance at full council meetings: Cut down the number of council members in Missoula and increase the job to full time, like the county commissioners’ posts. Then, she said, pay them a living wage.
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