The topic of unexcused absences made its way into the Payson Town Council’s ongoing discussion on policies surrounding town boards and commissions.
During its Sept. 23 meeting, the council looked at the town code regarding absences.
“The challenge is not showing up and not knowing in advance that somebody will not be present,” said Sheila DeSchaaf, deputy town manager and public works director in her presentation.
Currently, the town code allows for three unexcused absences, said DeSchaaf. That’s a problem because some commissions and boards only meet four times a year.
“If three consecutive meetings are missed, that’s three quarters of the meetings,” she said.
DeSchaaf told the council two high profile Planning and Zoning Commission meetings took place with only four members out of the seven present.
Both projects garnered considerable public attention. One involved the mine project near the event center and the other the medical marijuana dispensary.
For both projects, “they essentially failed to make a motion or recommendation to the council,” said DeSchaaf.
She said the town struggles to find volunteers for the Planning and Zoning Commission because “generally you are trying to make many people opposed or for come to a compromise, meetings are very contentious.”
Planning and Zoning meetings often bring in applicants for a zone change. If an unexcused absence causes a lack of a quorum, it creates an issue when all the parties have to reschedule.
DeSchaaf acknowledged the pandemic caused many communication challenges.
“A technology problem should not be the reason for their removal,” she said to the council.
Mayor Tom Morrissey agreed, blaming the pandemic “and the impact it has had on a lot of our functions.
“We witnessed tonight how difficult it’s been to get Zoom calls and be heard,” he said.
Town Manager Troy Smith told the council many of the unexcused absences became excused once the member could get through to explain the connection difficulties.
Unfortunately, the town code does not have an excuse for communications challenged absences defined, said Smith.
Councilor Jolynn Schinstock suggested a way around the issue. She wondered if it could become the duty of the chair or vice chair to contact absent members to determine the reason for the absence.
Councilor Barbara Underwood spoke from her experience on both sides. She has served as a member of the Planning and Zoning Commission and came before that commission for a zoning change when developing property.
“If you can’t make a meeting, it is really unfair for someone who had a project going forward. People can travel from out of state,” she said to explain how last minute rescheduling because the board or commission can’t provide a quorum, “is really hard on the town’s reputation.”
Underwood asked that the council consider what the town needs in its boards and commissions going forward, including experience.
“You don’t want all of one expertise on one board,” she said.
She took the Airport Commission as an example.
“The airport board has to have a pilot. I could never be on the airport board,” she said, explaining she’s never flown a plane and does not have that expertise to offer.
She asked the council as they move forward with discussions on the issue, to consider finding volunteers with special skills and knowledge these boards and commissions need.
DeSchaaf echoed Underwood, explaining the Planning Commission has never had a civil engineer volunteer.
“Because this planning commission ... reviews subdivisions (and) land uses that could affect neighboring properties,” she said. “(It’s) one of the skill sets we have always tried to find but lacked.”
DeSchaaf ended the discussion with an offer to bring staff suggestions for modifying the town code to address the issues the board has identified with its boards and commissions.
At a previous meeting, the council discussed who should be in charge of vetting applicants to boards and commissions. Currently, the town code allows the mayor to pick candidates and present them to the council for approval. The council has asked to be part of vetting process before a candidate goes to vote. That topic remains for the council to determine.