Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan says he plans to turn around and go home if he walks into any more meetings plagued by City Council member absences.
In his 31 years in public office, Ryan said this is his first seeing such spotty attendance, where two-thirds of the 30 gatherings this year have had at least one empty seat from a missing council member.
"It's the worst I've seen as mayor," said Ryan, a retired truck driver who has yet to miss a meeting this year. "It's become hard to work."
Across the state, City Council absences sometimes come in spurts tied to the seasons, especially if leaders migrate south in the winter.
But long before the first snowfall, absences pushed Blaine city leaders to cancel an August workshop. The seven-member body also relied on Skype to reach quorum at a meeting earlier this month, putting the suburb of 60,000 in the middle of a growing debate about technology's place to help time-strapped officials meet the demanding duties of public office.
Other Blaine City Council members insist that attendance is a "non-story" and has not raised public concern or hindered the city's ability to do business. Most misses, they say, stem from unavoidable scheduling conflicts, including far-flung work trips, a battle with meningitis and a hurricane relief effort through the Army Reserves.
Council members with the most absences noted they all hold full-time jobs. City ordinance sets council salaries at $875 a month, with the mayor making about $1,193 monthly.
"I don't think there's anyone on the council that purposefully misses meetings or skips out on them," said Council Member Jason King, who has been gone six times this year, three of them from a bout of viral meningitis, two due to work and one because of the championship game of the Little League Baseball team he coaches. "A lot of us have jobs where we're required to travel," he said.
Blaine is among a small number of cities turning to interactive tools like Skype to increase attendance at meetings, which some say may help attract and accommodate more young professionals with families. City officials are leaning on a 2013 state opinion that said correct Skype use from a remote location complies with the Open Meeting Law governing public bodies.
But Ryan worries that even with Skype, absences have slowed the city down, with council members missing crucial presentations and jeopardizing important votes.
"It's almost impossible to look at projects," Ryan said.
State statute leaves it up to cities to decide what constitutes an absence and how to compel members to attend meetings, said Hakeem Onafowokan, a staff attorney with the League of Minnesota Cities.
"It's really an issue for the individual city to come up with a policy that the entire council thinks is right," Onafowokan said, adding that there's no blanket rule saying council members can miss only a certain number of meetings.
In Blaine, the mayor's frustrations came to a head at a recent workshop, where tempers flared after Ryan described the number of absences as "absolutely out of sight."
"I will not apologize for having a job that takes me out of town," said Council Member Dave Clark, who works as a new business development manager for Malco Products and has tallied up a handful of absences. "Don't accuse me of blowing off council meetings."
Clark says he does his best to plan his work schedule around council commitments. He Skyped into a meeting while working in Panama earlier this year. "I take calls. I answer e-mails. I am still in contact with people," he said. "I may not be in the same room, but I am still doing the job."
Council Member Wes Hovland says each of his five absences are also related to his job as a crane technician, but allows that attendance matters.
"You miss one here and you miss one there — they add up," Hovland said. "I think there needs to be a collective effort to pay closer attention to our absences."
Skyping into meetings is a topic that city officials in Cohasset, Minn., also grappled with in recent years after a City Council member there attended gatherings digitally while wintering in California.
Questions swirled about Open Meeting Law violations, prompting the state Administration Department's Information Policy Analysis Division to weigh in.
The division's 2013 advisory opinion indicated that the use of "interactive television," including Skype, is permissible so long as it meets certain conditions. That includes everyone being able to see and hear one another, at least one member being present at the regular meeting location and any outside locations being open and accessible to the public.
"There were a couple of meetings where without the Skyping we couldn't have had a vote," said Cohasset Mayor Greg Hagy. "It's not perfect, but it can work in a pinch."
In Blaine, Council Member King used Skype to participate in a council meeting during a work trip to Las Vegas last year. Council Member Andy Garvais, who's in the Army Reserves, turned to the tool after his unit was tapped for hurricane relief efforts in September and early October.
Garvais, who's been absent from City Hall seven times this year, helped the Blaine City Council make a quorum Oct. 5, Skyping in from Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
"We're responsive to our citizens," Garvais said. "If we miss a meeting, we get caught up."
Still, Ryan worries about what's lost when leaders aren't present in person. "Pretty soon we'll all be Skyping and nobody will be there," he said.
A welcome sight awaited Ryan at the Oct. 19 council meeting after his public complaints about absenteeism. Behind the dais, all the City Council seats were full.