Videoconferencing rules weighed in Sunset Hills

Ernst questions attendance of Kostial through FaceTime

Keith Kostial

Keith Kostial

By Gloria Lloyd

The Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen might regulate videoconferencing, as some aldermen question how a fellow alderman has voted by video at half the meetings in the last six months.

The Sunset Hills Board of Aldermen was set to discuss an ordinance regulating video voting at a work session Tuesday night — after the Call went to press.

In the nine meetings since December, Ward 3 Alderman Keith Kostial has attended four in person, four by video and was absent from one due to a work commitment in Wisconsin. He has attended the last two meetings in person, but said he would be calling in Tuesday.

At the March 22 work session, aldermen unanimously voted for City Attorney Robert E. Jones to draft an ordinance regulating videoconferencing based on one from Richmond Heights, including limits of two meetings a year per alderman.

At a contentious meeting in February under former Mayor Mark Furrer, aldermen voted 5-3 to allow Kostial to use the iPhone app FaceTime to call in since Jones ruled that FaceTime counts as a video under state law — a position rejected by the dissenting aldermen, including board President Richard Gau, Ward 1 Alderman Dee Baebler and Mayor Pat Fribis, who then represented Ward 4.

The Legislature overrode Gov. Jay Nixon’s 2013 veto of videoconferencing.

The new law allows every member of a board to attend every meeting by video, Nixon said.

The board barely had a quorum for the work session, with Kostial, Baebler and Ward 2 Alderman Tom Musich absent. In a letter, Musich wrote that he had received complaints about videoconferencing and hoped the board could resolve the issue in a “professional and honorable manner without drama and grandstanding — everything else will be an additional unwanted public humiliation and disgrace.”

Videoconferencing equipment for City Hall could cost $10,000 to $15,000, Fribis said. A phone could be hooked up to a television screen with an HDMI cable for a much lower cost, however, Ward 2 Alderman Steve Bersche noted.

One of the votes for FaceTime, then-Ward 4 Alderman Donna Ernst, said she would have voted differently if she’d known hospital consultant Kostial planned to repeatedly use what she sees as an emergency attendance method. Ernst did not seek re-election and was succeeded April 26 by Ward 4 Alderman Thompson Price as Fribis was sworn in as mayor. Ernst was also set to be up for discussion Tuesday as one of the candidates for Fribis’ appointment of her replacement.

Although she opposed impeaching Furrer last year, Ernst was so upset with Kostial that she said impeachment for “neglect of duties” should not be taken off the table.

“We’re setting another standard here of a deadbeat alderman — you don’t have to show up to the meetings, you could do FaceTime, which is ridiculous,” Ernst said. “And our other choice is to spend $10,000 or $15,000 on one alderman because he took a job that he cannot fulfill. That’s not fair to us, it’s not fair to the citizens — the citizens cannot hear him, they can’t see him.”

At least one Missouri city, Marthasville, outlawed videoconferencing because city officials say they can’t afford to buy video equipment, but Jones does not believe that is a valid interpretation of the law.

Fourth-class cities like Sunset Hills cannot prohibit what state law allows, Jones said. Kostial interprets that to mean any restriction on videoconferencing would violate the law.

But from the outset, Jones has said video participation can be limited or regulated, just not outlawed, even though the state statute is “poorly written” and likely violates the Hancock Amendment as an unfunded mandate.

Aldermen made it clear they are unhappy with the quality of the FaceTime audio, which they variously described as “very distracting,” “super annoying” and a “nuisance.” To illustrate the disruption they see it as, Ernst loudly imitated what she said was constant pencil-tapping from Kostial.

“Sometimes you can’t hear him, sometimes he blasts you out of the room when he’s next to the microphone,” said Bersche, who has called Kostial the “Robo Alderman.”

Ward 3 voters should determine whether Kostial can attend by video, however, not aldermen, Bersche added. Other officials in favor of limits emphasized the issue goes beyond Kostial to a more general policy of how city meetings are conducted.

“This isn’t about a person,” Gau said.

Kostial, who plans to attend more meetings this summer, believes that other aldermen have targeted him because he doesn’t align his votes with theirs.

“When you drive down Watson Road, it doesn’t say welcome to the city of Pat Fribis or Donna Ernst, it says welcome to Sunset Hills,” Kostial said. “And Sunset Hills has to live by state law, not by somebody’s personal opinion.”

Kostial, who said he has only received positive feedback from the public on his videoconferencing, questioned Ernst’s accuracy in saying that he would not attend another meeting all year, and he believes he is the alderman who is most active checking in on City Hall.

“When Donna flies off the handle, she has no clue what’s going on,” he said. “I have my ear to the ground more, probably, than most other aldermen.”

Other aldermen have missed meetings and not tried to call in, but he came up with a modern, legal solution to represent his constituents, he said.

“This is 2016, not 1816,” Kostial said. “Instead of trying to figure out solutions, they would rather thwart me and thwart the law. This is the way of life and we live by the rules of the state of Missouri, not by the rules of any individual or clique or social club.”

Ward 3 voters would have “never in a million years” voted for Kostial if they’d known he was going to be out of state Sunday through Friday, Ernst said.

Kostial won election last year to succeed former Alderman Jan Hoffmann by three votes over Lori Scarlett. He won that election because he is an “independent thinker,” he told the Call.

“People voted me in for an independent thought, and they voted me in because I’m a business person, not because I’m retired,” Kostial said.

With no one defending Kostial at the work session, resident Casey Wong noted the alderman would prefer to be in the city with his wife and children but can’t.