Merriam city councilmember responds to concerns about recent meeting absences

Ward 4 Councilmember David Neal said reasons for his recent absences vary from work-related to family health issues. Since the city moved to virtual meetings due to COVID-19, Neal has missed four of the last 12 meetings — three city council meetings and one three-hour budget work session.

The city of Merriam has received concerns about Councilmember David Neal’s recent absences from regular city council meetings and work sessions, city officials confirmed. 

Since the city moved to virtual meetings earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Neal has missed four of the last 13 meetings, or roughly a third of all meetings. Neal was absent from the first virtual meeting April 13, then again for the July 13 and Aug. 10 city council meetings. He was also not at the July 20 budget work session.

Neal’s absence from the Aug. 10 meeting, in particular, led to a tense discussion at the Aug. 24 city council meeting, when some councilmembers expressed frustration at some of Neal’s questions about the mill levy rate, which had been discussed at the prior meeting Neal missed. 

Neal said his absences have been caused by a variety of reasons, including work-related and family health issues. He and his family have been impacted by COVID-19 in a variety of ways, he told the Post, which has caused him to be unavailable and “deal with other things.” 

“I have several reasons I was unable to be online at those particular moments,” Neal said. “It’s not something that I make a habit of doing, it’s under extraordinary circumstances — I take my role seriously.” 

Neal also noted that up until the April 13 meeting — the first one conducted virtually amid the pandemic — he had never missed a meeting.

No attendance expectations

There are no written expectations for councilmember attendance at city council meetings or work sessions, aside from letting staff know whether or not they will be attending, City Administrator Chris Engel said. It is up to the individual elected official to determine whether or not they are meeting expectations, he added.

Additionally, he said expectations about attendance may differ from person to person depending on if it’s a resident, a city staff member or a fellow councilmember. Despite the differing opinions, Engel said — if he were to speak more generally — councilmember attendance is expected for the following reasons: 

  • Councilmember engagement makes sure resident perspectives are included in policy discussions. 
  • It keeps all parties updated on policy issues, which in turn helps avoid issues of rehashing or revisiting previously discussed items. This can be taken as a sign of disrespect toward councilmembers that do attend, Engel said. 
  • Councilmembers are paid ($5,633 annually in Merriam), and it doesn’t look fair to residents or other governing body members to get paid for meetings they are missing. 

Neal’s Aug. 10 absence caused him to bring up a previously discussed topic at the Aug. 24 city council meeting: potentially lowering the mill levy rate. Neal suggested reducing the mill levy as residents suggested at the previous meeting, and Mayor Ken Sissom reiterated his Aug. 10 comments about why he was not in favor of rolling it back. 

Councilmember Chris Evans Hands said following the three-hour July 20 budget work session and the same mill levy discussion on Aug. 10, she felt there was no need to further discuss it. 

“We came to the consensus we are to hold steady,” Hands said at the Aug. 24 meeting. “It is an unfortunate thing for some people, but it is also a fortunate thing for some people. I feel like we’re going in circles, I’m not happy about that.” 

Neal apologized several times during the Aug. 24 meeting for missing the Aug. 10 meeting and the mill levy rate discussion.