County board should have second thoughts about cutting minutes

Lengthy minutes are costly, but public access to meaningful information is also valuable

Todd Dorman
Published: February 16 2014 | 5:05 am - Updated: 29 March 2014 | 3:42 am in
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It’s high time to spend a few minutes talking about minutes.

By minutes, I mean the variety taken at public meetings of governmental entities to chronicle what happened. This past week, the Linn County Board of Supervisors and the county auditor debated the merits of minutes, and just how long they should be.

Supervisor Ben Rogers and others lamented that board meeting minutes have become too wordy. Case in point, the minutes from a Jan. 28 meeting, featuring a lengthy budget debate between Auditor Joel Miller and the board, topped 7,000 words. An edited 2,800-word version was published in four local newspapers, including this one. Auditor’s office staff do the minute-taking and editing, if needed.

State law requires the county to publish its minutes in local papers. That costs money. Since the auditor and board started clashing over various issues, at length, a few years ago, the minutes have become longer, and costs jumped. The county now spends more than $90,000 a year publishing minutes.

Supervisor Linda Langston says other boards and councils simply publish bare-bones meeting accounts. “Discussion ensued. Motion passed …,” that sort of thing. She says that board minutes could be cut by 70 percent.

WHO CARES, SO ...

And besides, who cares? Hardly anyone reads this stuff.

Well, if government is going to curtail duties that most people don’t care about by 70 percent, we’re going to save a lot more than $90,000. Ka-ching.

Maybe it makes me sort of an odd duck, but I find myself caring. And not because my employer has a financial interest. I don’t care where minutes are published, so long as they’re easily accessible. Posted online, printed on paper, spray-painted on a grain bin, whatever works.

I care because boards of supervisors, school boards and city councils make all sorts of decisions that affect all sorts of people, and their children, and their wallets. Meeting minutes are a critical portion of the permanent record left in the wake of those decisions. They are fingerprints, DNA evidence, if you will. Routine? Yes. Well-read? No. But potentially important.

When I wanted to find out when, exactly, the Cedar Rapids City Council had voted to raise the city manager’s pay, I had to dig through the council’s meeting minutes to find those fingerprints. When I wanted to confirm that the Cedar Rapids School Board had purchased land west of the city, I strolled back through its meeting minutes to track down the facts.

WHY BARE BONES?

Minutes published by the city council and school board in Cedar Rapids are pretty bare bones. Go back, for instance, and look at the school board minutes from the dramatic meetings preceding the closure of Polk Elementary and you’ll see no evidence of that drama. There’s simply a long list of the names and addresses of people who spoke.

There is lots of who, what, where and when, but precious little why. Legally, that’s fine. But in the spirit of giving people, taxpayers, a full sense of how decisions get made, it’s less than fine.

The county does a better job, so I’d hate to see a 70 percent cut. Last year, when supervisors Rogers, Langston, John Harris and Lu Barron sought a roughly $20,000 pay raise, they argued that their jobs had become much more complicated. Issues had become more complex. Surely those complexities should be reflected in the board’s minutes.

Also last year, we were told that the $100,000 total for pay raises was a mere, insignificant and wafer-thin “0.001 percent” of the county’s budget. Hardly worth mentioning. Now, $90,000 for minutes publishing is a princely sum.

I’m not against some reasonable minutes-trimming, so long as we odd ducks can get a clear sense from the record of what actually took place. Reading about this minutes debate in the paper, the one key word I did not see the supervisors utter is “accuracy.” The goal really shouldn’t be length. It should be to produce an accurate, meaningful record of decisions and debate.

Does it have to be 7,000 words. Of course not. It’s not a transcript, and shouldn’t be. But it also shouldn’t be brief to the point of uselessness. Supervisor Brent Oleson has suggested that the county post lengthy minutes online and short ones in the paper. That’s not a bad idea, although I bet that somewhere down the line, the lengthy version will disappear.

So I’d rather see the county figure out a way to produce one good set of minutes that doesn’t break the bank or frustrate the odd ducks who care.

ALL WE HAVE

Local officials don’t exactly make caring easy. The Board of Supervisors holds its meetings on weekday mornings. The City Council holds half of its biweekly meetings at noon. Being a witness to the real thing doesn’t fit real life. Local media, spread thinner than ever, does its best to keep up, but can’t cover everything. So, in many cases, we’re left with the official record.

The auditor’s office staffers who take down all of those notes deserve a medal. While our elected leaders bicker, they’re working to give us some sense of what’s happening in these meetings. If those accounts get wordy, it’s windy public officials who are responsible, not the scribes trying to chronicle their wisdom.

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