City responds to Open Meetings Act question

During the June 9 meeting of the borough assembly, Wrangell resident Ryan Howe was appointed to fill a vacant position. A seat on the assembly was left empty after Drew Larrabee announced his resignation, brought about by his plans to move to pursue a new career opportunity. The unexpired term, now filled by Howe, comes to an end this October. However, the appointment of Howe has led to some question of whether or not the city violated the Open Meetings Act.

The Open Meetings Act, section 44.62.310, paragraph (a), reads as follows: "... Except when voice votes are authorized, the vote shall be conducted in such a manner that the public may know the vote of each person entitled to vote. The vote at a meeting held by teleconference shall be taken by roll call. This section does not apply to any votes required to be taken to organize a governmental body described in this subsection."

The vote to appoint Howe to the assembly, while taken via teleconference, was made via text message. There were two volunteers to fill the assembly seat, Howe and Laura Ballou. Assembly members voted by texting Borough Clerk Kim Lane who they wished to consider for appointment. There was some difficulty with Assembly Member Anne Morrison casting her vote, her text messages were not being sent. She made her vote via phone call, while muted on the Zoom meeting.

Howe won the vote, three to two. After the text message vote, the assembly voted by roll call to formally appoint Howe.

"Tonight we are doing things a little bit differently than traditionally we've done, although I know other assemblies do it this way," Mayor Steve Prysunka said prior to the vote. "I want to say to both of these individuals, thank you so much. This is a tough point to jump onto an assembly and we really appreciate both of your interest."

The Wrangell Sentinel reached out to the city's attorneys, the Levesque Law Group, to ask whether or not this vote violated the Open Meetings Act. The Sentinel was redirected to ask this of the borough manager, Lisa Von Bargen.

Von Bargen said that, to her knowledge, nothing wrong occurred in the June 9 meeting. It was her idea to vote by text, in fact. She explained that in previous appointments, an assembly member would "call up" one person at a time and cast a vote on whether or not to appoint them. This process can be slow, she said, and does not let the assembly consider all candidates at the same time.

In the city of Valdez, however, Von Bargen said their assembly has cast votes via ballot for appointments. She checked with the city attorney to see if Wrangell could do something similar, she said, and she was told it would be okay. The text message vote was the equivalent of assembly members writing down their votes on paper if they had been meeting in person, she said. Furthermore, this process was a little faster and, she said, more fair for both of the candidates to be considered at the same time. Von Bargen added that she is waiting to receive a memo from the city attorney to make sure nothing wrong occurred, but she does not believe there was any violation of the Open Meetings Act.

"The assembly doesn't believe it did anything wrong," she said.


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