When the Raleigh City Council gathered Aug. 24 for a work session on the new comprehensive plan, one seat was empty. Councilor Rodger Koopman, a Democrat, was out of town on business—again. But his opponent in the District B Council race, Republican John Odom, attended and from the back of the room was eyeing the unoccupied chair at the Council table that used to be his.
Odom smiled when asked whether he'd counted Koopman's absences. He nodded. Unsaid but nonetheless clear was that Odom, whose business, a local Meineke franchise, is entirely local, plans to make it an issue in the Oct. 6 election.
We decided to check the record ourselves. According to the minutes of Council meetings since Koopman was elected two years ago, he has attended 43 meetings in person, plus three more for which he was "present" via a telephone connection. He's missed eight meetings, two of them (afternoon and night sessions) on the same day—July 21 of this year.
Overall, his attendance record is about 85 percent.
We also checked the minutes of the Council's public works committee, probably its hardest-working group. (Every decision about roads and sewers comes through public works, resulting in lots of long meetings.) Koopman's attended 28 out of 33 meetings since being elected—also an 85 percent batting average.
Koopman's attendance isn't markedly worse than other Council members, all of whom miss the occasional meeting or committee meeting. (No official attendance records are kept.) What makes it different, however, is that six of his eight absences (including the day-night miss), plus two of his committee absences, have occurred over the last four months, during which Koopman's work has taken him to Seattle, San Diego, San Antonio and Atlanta, among other distant spots, he says.
The missed meetings included a public hearing on the comprehensive plan at the Eastgate Community Center Aug. 10, at which the subject was issues in Northeast Raleigh—in Koopman's district.
And then there was that trio of Council meetings between May and November 2008 that Koopman attended by phone hookups that allowed him to hear the discussion and vote, but his colleagues heard him only with great difficulty.
The first meeting that Koopman phoned in frosted fellow Councilor Philip Isley, especially when Koopman joined a 7-1 majority vote to increase impact fees on developers. (Isley voted no.)
Isley was happier, and Koopman's fellow progressive councilors Russ Stephenson and Thomas Crowder were the unhappy ones when Koopman voted by telephone in October in favor of two controversial development projects—in Cameron Village and the Stanhope neighborhoods—that Isley liked and the others didn't.
After one final experiment last November, Koopman stopped phoning it in.
Koopman's work life changed in May 2008, he said, when he took a new job with a small start-up company, EDSA Micro, which specializes in "advanced power analytics and real-time monitoring of large electrical facilities, such as data centers."
Its clients include such government giants as the U.S. Navy and the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as private corporations with big power needs, Koopman said. For example, he's in charge of selling, installing and troubleshooting two software products at Navy bases all over the country.
The company is headquartered in San Diego, but as the result of a buyout, several of its key executives live in Raleigh, which is how he came to work for them.
"Because we're a very small organization," Koopman said, "you travel when you have to."
On the other hand, his colleagues here are supportive of his public role and help him juggle travel demands so that he doesn't miss key meetings, he said. And when Mayor Charles Meeker "feels I cannot be absent," he added, "I am not absent."
Koopman kicked his campaign off last week with an event hosted by Candy Fuller, vice chair of the Northeast Citizens Advisory Council, a strong supporter. Meeker attended and endorsed him. So did Councilor Russ Stephenson, who chairs the public works committee and called Koopman "absolutely hard-working and effective."
The two of them, Stephenson said, but especially Koopman, spent countless hours fielding e-mails and phone calls and attending neighborhood meetings in connection with the hard-fought question of how much—and how—to widen Falls of Neuse Road in Koopman's district.
The two recommended the eventual solution, widening the road to five lanes, not six, with center medians instead of a continuous center turn lane.
Stephenson also credited Koopman with resolving a thorny if unremarked issue that involved sewer easements all over the city. It cropped up first in Koopman's district, Stephenson said, with the state threatening to fine Raleigh's utility deparment for not protecting the easements from trees, barns and other obstructions.
Koopman acknowledges that "it's stressful" juggling his job, his Council post and his family—he has a wife and a 9-year-old son, who tells him, "I never see you, Daddy," he said.
He's able to manage, he said, because he's adept with high-tech communications tools and because he can do a lot of his software development work at home on his own schedule.
But Koopman is also intent on "starting the conversation, very gingerly," about whether Council jobs should continue to be part-time, at $11,000 a year, when doing them well requires almost a 40-hour-a-week commitment.
As mayor, Meeker is paid $15,000 a year. The pay hasn't been increased in 15 years.
"It's an honor and a privilege to serve, don't get me wrong," Koopman said. "But we're really being dishonest in the sense that we're saying it's really a full-time job—hahaha—but we're going to give you $11,000 a year to do it."
The upshot is that anyone with a 9-to-5 style job can't even consider running for Council, a fact he calls "undemocratic."
"In all fairness," Koopman said, "for this to be viable so that people can truly participate and consider running for office, we should consider making these [Council seats] full-time and paying $60,000-$70,000 a year."