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Officials who play hooky may lose pay

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State Rep. Mike Thompson is disgusted with local city council members and county commissioners who don't attend their meetings.

A good way to bring absentee public officials into line — and make them go to public meetings and budget retreats — is to dock their pay, he says.

Thompson, R-Orem, has a bill this session that allows city councils and county commissions to, on their own, pass such punishment ordinances. The bill passed a House committee Friday and now will be considered by the whole House.

"Over the last 10 years some Orem council members have missed half of their meetings," said Thompson, who served on the council for three years. He said the Orem city attorney routinely told Thompson the council didn't have the authority to dock the pay or otherwise punish absent elected officials.

"I can't imagine that voters would be so out of tune" that they wouldn't vote such council members out of office at the next election, said Rep. Steve Clark, R-Provo.

"They don't. They just keep getting re-elected," replied Thompson.

League of City and Towns lobbyist Dave Spatafore said his group opposes Thompson's bill, saying it isn't needed because state law already gives cities such power. But Spatafore angered Thompson and other committee members when he said Thompson himself was late for a previous legislative committee hearing. As a result Thompson's bill was not heard and some city officials who attended the meeting didn't get the chance to testify.

"Should (Thompson's) pay be docked because he wasn't here?" asked Spatafore. "It's only fair that you do the same thing."

Thompson said he was late because he was presenting a bill in another committee and then was waylaid in a hallway by House Speaker Marty Stephens, who wanted to talk to him about something.

Spatafore was called on the carpet for his comments and apologized. But he added, "even the consideration of such a bill sends a bad message to the public" that many part-time city council members and mayors aren't doing their jobs well, when in fact they are, said Spatafore.

Thompson said current Orem council member Judy Bell, a former president of the league, supports his bill and admits to an attendance problem by some Orem council members.

Contacted after the hearing, Bell said she does not support Thompson's bill because she believes state code gives local officials the power Thompson seeks.

But, in acknowledging a problem with Orem officials attending meetings, she added: "It's really difficult censuring one of your own. Ultimately, it's up to the voters to do any censuring."

After Thompson's bill was amended to remove language that specifically mentioned docking an absent council member's pay, the committee passed the bill. Pay could be docked under Thompson's broad new authority, but it shouldn't be mentioned, several committee members said, because city councils may feel the Legislature is demanding such financial penalties.

Contributing: Jesse Hyde