PALMER — According to legal opinions released this week, no Mat-Su Borough assembly member is likely to get booted off the body for violating residency requirements.
Questions arose at the assembly’s Feb. 19 meeting, at the tail end of which Assemblyman Warren Keogh asked borough attorney Nick Spiropoulos for an opinion regarding Assemblyman Ron Arvin, who has been working in Taiwan and attending assembly meetings over the phone for more than three months.
Assemblyman Steve Colligan, often a political ally of Arvin, followed that up by asking the attorney for an opinion on Keogh who, he alleged, didn’t live in his home district of Chickaloon.
Those kinds of politically sensitive opinions are generally farmed out to outside law firms. The law firm Birch Horton Bittner & Cherot provided the opinion on Arvin.
The rules say that a person who is physically absent from the borough for more than 90 days has to have assembly permission. But can they do that after the fact? Does the absence have to be excused before the member leaves?
“While it is unclear under Alaska law whether post-absence excuse is permitted, the existing law, as well as the Assembly’s own conduct, weigh in favor of permitting the assembly to excuse the absence,” the opinion states.
Arvin, for his part, doesn’t deny he was gone, but said, among other things, that his attendance record at meetings — even though he often attends via telephone — is superb, that his constituents have full access to him via email and telephone, and that voters knew about his work situation when they chose to return him to office last year.
That’s part of what borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss was getting at when he said at the tail-end of Tuesday’s assembly meeting he would work to get Arvin’s absences excused.
“I am going to be bringing a resolution to the next assembly meeting asking the assembly to excuse assembly member Arvin,” the mayor said. “I personally assumed that the voters excused him because it was a very central part of a very open campaign on that very issue and voters knew what they were getting.”
However, knowledge of the borough’s 90-day absence policy did not come to light until last month — long after the October 2012 vote.
As for the Keogh opinion; a memo from Levesque Law Group in Anchorage starts out by saying the question is moot.
“The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Code is clear that assembly members must reside within the district that they represent and that members who cease to reside within that district may only continue representation of that district until the next general election,” according to the opinion.
That next election is one that Keogh has to run in anyway; he’s up for re-election in the October 2013 general election.
But is he out of compliance?
The opinion says that Keogh’s residency in Chickaloon appears to be valid, “so long as he does not vote in an election reserved to any (state) House district other than the one assigned to Chickaloon.”
Whether his claims of residency in Chickaloon are valid would require an investigation, one that the assembly could certainly seek, according to the requested legal review.
Keogh, for his part, has denied allegations he lives outside of Chickaloon, conceding that he does often spend the night in Palmer instead of making such a long drive home when he’s conducting borough business.
Contact reporter Andrew Wellner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352-2270.