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When two voting members of the West Jordan City Council blocked another from participating in a meeting Wednesday, two questions emerged: Can a councilman still represent his residents while away on business for an extended period? And should he be able to do so electronically?
Mayor Kim Rolfe and Councilman Dirk Burton seem to say "no" on both counts. The two voted against allowing Chad Nichols, an at-large councilman who is on a temporary work relocation to Alaska with the Federal Aviation Administration, to participate in the meeting via webcam. A motion to allow him to take part failed with the other three council members in favor because state law requires a supermajority when less than a full quorum is present.
"I don't think any councilman should be barred from participating electronically. Historically we've permitted it," Nichols told The Salt Lake Tribune. "To me, it's unprecedented. It's the first time that a councilman has been barred from participating, and that's my No. 1 grievance with the whole process. I was elected to represent my constituents, and my colleagues are squashing that."
Council rules that have been in place for more than 14 years state a member can participate electronically in case of a city emergency, if he or she is out of town for official city business, for unique circumstances or for any reason if the rules are suspended. Burton told The Tribune he voted against allowing Nichols to participate in the meeting to uphold these rules.
"I don't have a bone to pick with Councilman Nichols, but I'm not the one that decided to go to Alaska and make myself unavailable to my constituents," he said. "I'm the one trying to enforce the rule that's there."
Bonnie Fernandez, a West Jordan resident, said she has mixed feelings on whether someone can adequately represent his constituents electronically but said she thinks it was "absolutely wrong" for the council to exclude Nichols.
"I want my representatives physically present, but I understand that's not how things work now," she said. "He certainly can cast votes not being here. What's missing when you're not here in person is you don't get to chat with your neighbors and people you see at the stores about things that are going on. So you don't have as great a perspective on what people want, because you're not here talking to them."
Both Rolfe and Burton indicated on Facebook that Nichols had never told them about his relocation.
"When it comes to city councilmen, there is a widely held assumption that those they are electing to represent them will be spending a majority of their time in their district," Rolfe wrote on Facebook. "Should this situation change, the voters should be made aware of it."
Nichols said he shouldn't be blocked over "hurt feelings."
"These guys have excluded me for absolutely petty reasons," he said.
State law requires elected officials to live in the district they serve. HB186, which Gov. Gary Herbert signed in May, says that a municipal office is automatically vacant if the elected official lives at a secondary residence outside the municipality for more than 60 continuous days.
Nichols said he won't be gone longer than a year but will return frequently to attend council meetings.
For this reason, Burton said he doesn't anticipate state residency laws will come into play in West Jordan, but he still questioned Nichols' ability to serve his constituents.
"In my mind, a year is long-term," he said. "If I were to borrow your car from you temporarily and brought it back in a year, you probably wouldn't feel that was temporary."
Rolfe told The Tribune he had no further comment beyond his Facebook statement, in which he indicated he had received threats of retaliation if he voted against allowing Nichols to take part in the meeting.
"I was informed of retaliation and 'social media vindication' should I not agree to the suspending of rules for his electronic participation," he wrote. "The people of West Jordan are begging for a united council. This is extremely difficult to do when threats are being made and secrets being kept."
Fernandez said she hopes the council will change its 14-year-old rule requiring the council to vote on whether to allow a member to participate electronically so her representatives can get back to more important issues.
"Until it is changed, yeah, that's the rule. They have to vote on it," she said. "There's so many really valid important issues going on in West Jordan. This is just one of those little irksome personality conflict kind of things."