Archive for Thursday, August 23, 2012

Minutes issue heads to City Council with officials deadlocked

August 23, 2012

The minutes of the Shawnee City Council Committee’s Aug. 21 discussion on whether to restore detailed written minutes of city meetings will read something like this:

The committee voted 4-4 on Ward 4 council member Michelle Distler’s motion supporting continuation of live and recorded audio of city meetings plus resumption of detailed written minutes, to be kept by a stenographer if that proves most cost-effective.

What won’t be reflected in the “action” minutes, which the City Council moved to last August to save money, are the arguments that preceded the tie vote.

And that’s the way it should be, said Ward 3 council member Dawn Kuhn, who made an impassioned plea against restoring the detailed minutes.

Meeting minutes should provide a clear record of official actions taken, Kuhn said, adding that “they’re not supposed to be a ‘he said, she said.’” Those interested in the full dialogue can tune into the audio recordings via the city’s website from the comfort of their own homes, she said. The audio also is preferable to detailed written minutes because it’s less expensive to provide and captures context and voice inflection in a way the written word can’t, Kuhn added.

Her strident comments came after Ward 1 council member Dan Pflumm made the evening’s first motion on the issue, calling for resumption of the detailed written minutes at an annual cost estimated at $16,607 (plus a one-time set-up charge estimated at $7,397) and discontinuance of the current audio system, which costs $7,620 a year. Another option city staff put on the table for discussion called for retaining the audio system and adding the written minutes for an annual cost of $24,227 (plus the $7,397 set-up cost).

Kuhn said the minutes issue is not about “transparency,” which she argued was just a “buzzword” being used by the handful of residents lobbying for the written record to be restored. Rather, she said, the question is whether the city should “spend $17,000 or $24,000 to give the same information in a different format.”

Pflumm argued that the audio format is not equipped with an adequate search function, meaning anyone searching for a particular portion of a recorded discussion could spend considerable time finding it. But he eventually withdrew his motion, and a motion from Kuhn died for lack of a second. It called for sticking with the status quo but adding enhanced audio search functions as they become available through the audio vendor.

Ultimately, Distler moved that the council explore keeping the audio, resuming the detailed written minutes and hiring a stenographer to keep them, which would eliminate the need for the $7,397 set-up charge and might be cheaper than paying someone to transcribe tapes of the meetings.

Distler’s fellow Ward 4 council member, Mickey Sandifer, originally stated that he opposed spending money to both retain the audio system and add detailed written minutes. But he ultimately voted in favor Distler’s motion along with her, Pflumm and Ward 2 council member Alan Willoughby.

Voting against the motion were Kuhn, Jim Neighbor (Ward 1), Neal Sawyer (Ward 2) and committee chairman Jeff Vaught.

The tie vote means the issue will be forwarded to the City Council without a recommendation.

Ironically, Vaught said he voted against Distler’s motion because committee discussion of the issue became so convoluted. Vaught had voiced support for bringing the issue back for further discussion at the committee level. But it now is scheduled to be hashed out during a Sept. 10 meeting of the full council, which includes the eight committee members and Mayor Jeff Meyers.

During a June City Council meeting, Vaught moved that the committee discuss restoring the written minutes at the request of Tony Lauer, who lives down the street from him in the Crimson Ridge subdivision. Lauer had found the written, searchable minutes of city meetings an indispensable research tool in opposing the recent sale of Crimson Ridge open space to a for-profit company that planned to restrict residents’ access.

Since getting involved in that issue, Lauer has broadened his interest in local government, expanded his open records requests to include diverse subject matter and begun blogging about city affairs. He is presumably one of the “two bloggers” Kuhn referred to in claiming only five or six people had voiced concerns about the minutes issue. But Lauer’s next-door neighbor, John Male, said that was irrelevant.

Male, who publishes the state’s oldest newspaper, the Record in Kansas City, Kan., agreed with Kuhn that restoring the minutes “is not a matter of transparency.”

“It’s a matter of responsibility to constituents and the people who report on what you say and what you do,” he said.

“Even the $31,000 cost (which Distler believes can be reduced through the stenographer) is not a lot of money,” Male added. “I think you could probably find that somewhere in your budget.”

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