Calif. councilman gets creative

For several hours one night last week, Jim Cooper sat alone at the Lillian Carden Community Center in the town of Quantico.

It’s not the first time Cooper has done this. One night, he was there by himself until almost 2 a.m.

And it won’t be the last time. Cooper will sit alone again at the community center on Dec. 4.

Yet, Cooper is not really alone. He is actively participating in a city council meeting filled with people thousands of miles away — thanks to a couple of speaker phones.

“I plug the phone in and participate in the meetings,” Cooper said.

Cooper is a member of the Elk Grove, Calif., City Council. Elk Grove is a suburb of San Francisco

Cooper also is a captain in the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department.

When he was selected to attend a three-month course at the FBI National Academy, Cooper had the full support of his five-member council.

However, he still wanted to “attend” council meetings while he was in Northern Virginia.

“We wanted to do anything we could to accommodate that,” said Terry Fitzwater, Elk Grove assistant city manager. “It was a dilemma.

“I don’t know of any other city that has had to do something like this,” Fitzwater said. “We had to get creative.”

Fitzwater said they first thought that Cooper might be able to “attend” the council meetings from a hotel conference room. A California law, however, nixed the idea, he said.

“It is a requirement in California that a council agenda must be posted 72 hours in advance of a meeting,” Fitzwater said. “We didn’t think a hotel would be willing to do this.”

The Elk Grove agenda had to be posted at the location where Cooper would be participating in the city council meeting. The reasoning behind this is that if an Elk Grove resident was in the area, they could read the agenda and attend the meeting with Cooper, Fitzwater said.

Fitzwater’s next option was to turn to a local municipality for help. “At first I didn’t even know Quantico as a town existed,” Fitzwater said.

But he soon found the decades-old town of Quantico with it population of 560, so very different than the two-year city of Elk Grove, with its population of nearly 90,000.

Fitzwater sent a letter to Quantico Mayor Mitchel P. Raftelis.

“They asked for our help and the [Quantico] Town Council approved it,” said Raftelis.

For the third time, Elk Grove faxed its council agenda to the Quantico Town Hall. Raftelis then posted it outside the community center, the same location where the Quantico council hold its meetings.

And, on the night of the meeting, Cooper used the town’s key to let himself into the community center to attend the meeting that began at 9:30 p.m., 6:30 p.m. California time.

“[During past meetings,] I spread out my agenda package on the table,” Cooper said. At 9:25 p.m., the telephonic link to the Elk Grove meeting was made. “I ask questions, make comments and vote,” Cooper said.

Last week, however, there was a clich in the established routine.

There was too much static on the phone line for Cooper to hear. So, with the help of Raftelis, the phone line was connected outside of the community center.

Cooper then sat on a chair outside the center on the cold, dark night. Despite barking dogs and a couple of noisy passing trains, he was still able to participate in the California meeting.

On the other end of the line, Cooper’s remarks and votes were broadcast as well, so everyone attending could hear him, Fitzwater said.

Cooper said he was quite comfortable with the telephone set-up, noting that communicating has changed so much in recent years.

“All of us on the [Elk Grove] council communicate by phone and by e-mail most of the time anyway,” Cooper said.

His constituents also are able to reach him while he’s away either through e-mail or on his cell phone.

“I’m very fortunate that I’ve been able to do this,” Cooper said.

He and Fitzwater praised Quantico officials for making the arrangement work.

“I love this town,” Cooper said. “They have been very helpful to us.”

“We were very happy that Quantico was able to accommodate us,” Fitzwater said. “We can’t thank them enough. They have been very cooperative.”

Staff writer Aileen M. Streng can be reached at (703) 878-8010.

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