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City Council joins the electronic revolution

BY KATHRYN STINSON | FEBRUARY 08, 2010 7:30 AM

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The Iowa City City Council might not use a new electronic communication system too regularly, council attendance records show.

For years, absent councilors couldn’t cast a vote on agenda items.

To combat issues that arise when councilors miss meetings, the City Council approved the purchase of an electronic communication system at a meeting last month. The equipment will give absent councilors the option of calling in to participate in meetings electronically.

Iowa City’s councilors are not notorious for missing meetings. In 2009, then-Councilor Amy Correia was absent the most, accumulating six absences, according to meeting minutes. Councilor Ross Wilburn came in next with five absences.

After the system is installed, councilors will be marked as participating electronically instead of as absent.

Councilors, including former Mayor Regenia Bailey, said at their Jan. 25 meeting that they’re optimistic the electronic alternative will help prevent rescheduling meetings and split votes.

“It is the 21st century after all,” said Bailey, who didn’t miss any meetings in 2009. “If we have that kind of capability, it makes for a nice option.”

The cost for the equipment will likely be between $700 and $1,200, said City Clerk Marian Karr. The updated technology will use both the current public-address system and a phone line.

Councilors will dial directly into the system.

Karr also noted the system could be useful to various city commissions that also meet in Harvat Hall.

Councilors grappled with a split vote in December 2009 when they failed to pass an amendment that would cut the 2-percent franchise fee in half.

Because of the split, the City Council decided to suspend the vote until new councilors took office.

The council didn’t vote again on the reduction until last week.

Other cities across the state are using the same technology.

Des Moines installed an electronic system in 1998, Des Moines City Clerk Diane Rauh said. It cost $25,000 to remodel their meeting room; the phone connection was the cheapest component.

The Des Moines City Council uses the system when a councilor or the mayor is out of town. The councilors will often request that an absent councilor call in to vote during controversial circumstances, Rauh said.

Rauh said the system works well, noting the only problem is an occasional failed cell-phone connection.

Davenport officials also use phone lines to communicate when an alderman is absent, said Deputy City Clerk Jackie Holecek.

The city began using its system before she was hired 23 years ago, she said.

Though an electronic system seems to work well for other cities, all Iowa City’s councilors said they agree the new system should be used sparingly.

Councilor Connie Champion said she has always thought councilors should be present to vote, but she understands why the majority of the council endorses the system.

“I think part of listening to the public is being there and seeing their mannerisms and faces,” she said. “Electronic communication takes that out of the picture. Its use should be limited.”


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