Roll call: How often is your Grand Forks council member present?
City Council members are people, too, with busy lives and careers. Sometimes, they miss meetings.
But when you're on the City Council, handling millions in public dollars—and making big decisions on a community's future—how often should you be expected to show up for the weekly meeting?
A Herald analysis shows the seven members of the Grand Forks City Council have varying attendance rates—from about 98 percent down to 79 percent. Altogether, members missed an average of about 8 percent of their meetings since the most recently elected were sworn in during June 2016.
Those numbers are drawn from a look back at the city's marquee gatherings: City Council and the Committee of the Whole. Each group typically meets twice a month, with the committee session functioning as a preliminary working group that drills into the agenda in greater detail. Smaller committees that have one or two City Council delegates among their members were not counted.
The attendance rate is an interesting shorthand, though some insist it only measures the tip of an iceberg of work, much of which happens outside Council Chambers. That could be constituent calls, work on a minor committee or simply understanding next week's agenda.
"When people have asked me in the past, in terms of running for office, I tell them I spend anywhere from 15 to 20 hours a week," council member Bret Weber said of his job. "That's an average, so there are weeks when I spend more."
The Herald reviewed the official city attendance roster to build its numbers, but checked it against meeting videos, Herald articles and meeting minutes, generating additional data on late arrivals and early departures.
City Council President Dana Sande had the lowest attendance record, attending 44 of 56 meetings—or 78.6 percent—since the current council was sworn in on June 28, 2016.
Other council members defended Sande's attendance record, including Weber, who said Sande is among the top two who put in the longest hours per week on council work—if not the one at the very top.
"When he can be here, I think he's very engaged," member Jeannie Mock said. "And when he can't, I think he's an email away."
Sande, vice president of business development for the UND Aerospace Foundation, said he has a demanding work schedule that requires travel, and that his time invested in council work takes up, on average, 12 to 15 hours of his week. This time of year, he said, it's often even more, as he pores over next year's budget and works with city staff.
"I'm incredibly good at what I do," he said. "I have four Chinese airlines training in two different locations. That doesn't happen without a lot of hard work and effort. Frankly, the revenue that brings into our community far outweighs the few meetings that I miss."
The next-lowest attendance rate went to Crystal Schneider, with 89.3 percent attendance; then Sandi Marshall, with 91.1 percent attendance; Bret Weber, with 92.9 percent attendance; and Danny Weigel, with 94.6 attendance.
The City Council member with the second- best attendance was Mock, who was present for 54 of 56 meetings—that's 96.4 percent. Both those absences come within the past several weeks and shortly after the birth of a child—or she might have had perfect attendance.
Ken Vein, City Council vice president, had the best attendance, and was present for 55 of 56 meetings—or 98.2 percent. His single absence came several weeks ago on July 24.
"I was at a dinner meeting in Bismarck dealing specifically with water legislative leadership in Bismarck," said Vein, who also serves as a Grand Forks County representative to the Garrison Diversion Conservancy District. "I couldn't be at the council, (but) it was actually a city-related meeting."
An analysis of Mayor Mike Brown's attendance takes a different approach. Brown doesn't customarily attend committee meetings, but was present for 27 of 29 City Council meetings for a 93.1 percent attendance rating. He also attended a special Committee of the Whole meeting in late July for a review of the 2018 budget.
Many council members relied on teleconference several times to join the meeting, like Bret Weber, who called in three times over the Herald's study period.
"When I teach online, I can get a much better sense of body language, I can share both written and voice messages, and I can share documents back and forth," said Weber, a UND social work professor. "The technology is available to make this a much more access-friendly and interactive process than what we're currently doing with just Skype."
In some cases, it was difficult to tell if a council member was present or not. For an Oct. 17 City Council meeting, the official city record counts member Danny Weigel present—but he's not in his seat or heard responding during roll call in the meeting video, and the Herald story on the day marks him absent. However, since video shows he attended a Jobs Development Authority meeting immediately beforehand by phone, the Herald gave him the benefit of the doubt and marked him in "unclear" attendance. It's possible he stayed on the line and was difficult to hear in chambers.
Additionally, late departures were all treated the same—regardless of whether a council member left early by five minutes, 15 minutes or half an hour.
The Herald's data contradicts city data in at least one place. According to city video, Jeannie Mock is not in her seat and does not speak via phone during the July 6 meeting, despite a city meeting roster that indicates her physically present—not calling in remotely—and meeting minutes that describe remarks she made. The Herald story from that date marks her absent, as well.
When asked, Mock confirmed the absence.
"I had the baby on June 28, and I made the meeting that week, and missed the following two, with maternity leave," she said.
Mock said it's tough to say what an appropriate percentage is for meetings. It's a balancing act, she said, alongside work and personal life.
"(But) you want to be there as much as you can and representing people to the best of your ability," she said.