CEDAR RAPIDS — Not every reader of the local newspaper burrows down into the small print of legal notices to attempt to divine the goings on at City Hall or with the county Board of Supervisors.
But Linn County Auditor Joel Miller says that plenty of people who have followed the tosses and turns of Linn County government devotedly go to the legal notices to read the meeting minutes of the Linn County Board of Supervisors.
“People can’t get to the meetings, so this is sometimes their only view,” Miller said. “It’s filling in the holes for people.”
These meetings in the last year or more have featured plenty of discord, sometimes heated, between Miller and the supervisors. And some version of that is captured in narrative form in the legal notices in the four newspapers in Linn County where the minutes of supervisors’ meetings are published. Those are The Gazette, the Marion Times, the Linn News-Letter and the Mount Vernon-Lisbon Sun.
Miller’s office serves as the clerk for the Board of Supervisors, and so Miller’s office takes the minutes at each board meeting and Miller’s office arranges to have the minutes published in the four newspapers.
At its meeting on Wednesday, the supervisors talked about shortening the published minutes considerably so they deliver less word-by-word narrative and more of the basics at less cost.
“Discussion ensued. Motion passed …,” was one version of a more-minimalist type of meeting minutes that Supervisor Linda Langston said was more in line with the minutes of some other boards of supervisors that she has reviewed.
She estimated that the length of the Linn board’s published minutes could be reduced by 70 percent.
Langston said she’d like to return to published minutes as she said they had been before Miller took office.
By way of example, Supervisor Ben Rogers pointed to the supervisors’ Jan. 28 meeting, at which Miller and the supervisors went back and forth about his budget. The meeting generated minutes that ran to 7,546 words. He said one conversation in the minutes filled more than a single 8-by-11 sheet of paper.
Rogers said he also came to learn from Miller’s office that the minutes approved by the board then can be condensed into a shortened version by Miller’s office before they are published in the newspaper. Only 2,806 words got published from the Jan. 28 meeting minutes with the best of the back and forth between Miller and Supervisor Brent Oleson deleted.
“What gets published? … What is the criteria,” Rogers asked.
“We don’t see those,” Langston said.
Miller said his top deputy, supervisor candidate Becky Shoop, and another staff person take care of meeting minutes. He said he never looks at them. Typically, minutes are published as approved by the supervisors, though at times some of the back and forth in a discussion can get cut in the published version, he said after Wednesday’s meeting.
Assistant Linn County Attorney Gary Jarvis said that published minutes in Iowa need to contain by law only the basics, such as actions taken. They don’t need to feature the details of lengthy discussions that led up to the actions. He said the published minutes he has seen from other jurisdictions run the “spectrum” from windy to “not telling you much.”
At the same time, Jarvis said meeting minutes that reach to 7,000 words in length can leave a false impression that they accurately have captured what everyone in a conversation has said. Only an actual word-by-word transcript from a qualified court reporter could deliver that, he said.
“I’m not advocating the bare bones,” Jarvis said. “… But I’m not sure that ‘this person said that and this person said that’ needs to be in there.”
Miller said his office pays the four newspapers in the county for a variety of legal notices, but he said the annual publishing costs of meeting minutes and claims increased from $45,944 in 2006 before his taking office to $92,122 in 2013.
Inflation and his being in office helped account for the increase, he said.
Miller said he is open to change the way that his office takes and publishes meeting minutes if the transparency of how county government works is not jeopardized.