City Council votes to restore detailed meeting minutes
Let the minutes reflect that detailed minutes are back.
After weeks of discussion, the Shawnee City Council voted 6-1 Monday night to restore detailed written minutes of all city meetings.
Ward 3 Councilwoman Dawn Kuhn, who made an impassioned plea against restoring the minutes during an Aug. 21 committee meeting, was absent for the vote. But it didn’t seem to make much difference.
Ward 1 Councilman Jim Neighbor cast the only vote against his ward mate Dan Pflumm’s motion to restore the detailed written minutes and to retain live and recorded audio of meetings. Why? Primarily cost, Neighbor said after the meeting.
“I have real concerns about 2013 and what’s going to happen with the state of Kansas,” Neighbor said of the continuing economic malaise and the potential for a downstream impact on cities from dramatic tax cuts approved by the state legislature last session.
Neighbor added that if it made sense for the city to suspend the detailed minutes as a cost-cutting measure last year, it makes just as much sense now.
Instead, after being accused of a lack of transparency in recent weeks, the council voted to increase spending on minutes from the pre-2011 level.
In both 2009 and 2010, the council spent about $17,000 to provide detailed minutes. Pflumm’s motion, seconded by Ward 4 Councilwoman Michelle Distler, calls for the city to spend an estimated $24,227 to provide audio and written records of the meeting plus $7,397 for a one-time charge to update transcription hardware and software.
Sticking with the status quo approved last year — the live and recorded audio, plus barebones “action” minutes — would have cost $7,620 a year.
During the Aug. 21 City Council Committee meeting, Distler asked that staff look into another, less expensive option for resuming detailed minutes: hiring a stenographer to produce verbatim minutes. That option, the council learned Monday, would cost about $4,500 less a year than what the council ultimately approved: hiring someone to listen to recordings of the meeting and produce detailed minutes.
But according to City Manager Carol Gonzales, verbatim minutes would not be pretty, as they would include all the “ands, buts, ums” and sentence fragments voiced during meetings.
Mayor Jeff Meyers wasn’t as interested in the details of how the detailed minutes are to be produced as we he was in the message Monday night’s vote will send.
“I want us to be as transparent as possible, and I want the citizens to think we are as transparent as possible,” Meyers said.
Meyers defended the council’s 2011 vote to cut costs by moving away from detailed minutes. The audio system that was added as a result of that vote seemed to improve transparency, giving residents the option of either tuning in to meetings live via their home computers or listening to recordings later, he said.
But the audio-only method of providing meeting details has proved problematic, Meyers said. In addition to being difficult to search for specific information, the audio system makes it hard to tell who is speaking or what is being said at times, the mayor added, and on occasion, it has malfunctioned.
Therefore, while he didn’t get to vote on the issue, Meyers voiced support for the option ultimately approved by the council. Voting for the motion, besides Pflumm and Distler, were council members Neal Sawyer, Alan Willoughby, Jeff Vaught and Mickey Sandifer.
Early in the discussion, Sandifer had said he was not in favor of funding both the audio system and detailed written minutes. But in the end, he sided with the majority.
The issue of restoring the minutes was raised during a June City Council meeting, when Vaught moved that the Council Committee look into it at the request of resident Tony Lauer. Lauer, who lives down the street from Vaught in the Crimson Ridge subdivision, testified that he had found the written, searchable minutes of city meetings an indispensable research tool in opposing the recent sale of open space in the neighborhood to a for-profit company that planned to restrict residents’ access.
Lauer, now a regular at City Council meetings and a blogger about city affairs, said Monday that he appreciated the direction the city was moving in.
But Meyers gaveled him down Monday for taking too much time to present an argument for better searchability of the city minutes. The current system, Lauer said, allows computer searches only for those words contained in agenda item headings.
Lauer has been advocating for more open local government since encountering difficulty in obtaining documents about his neighborhood and other city issues through Kansas Open Records Act requests.
Prompted by a letter from Lauer, Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe is currently investigating allegations that Meyers and members of the City Council discussed city business — specifically, the appointment of Willoughby, Meyers’ uncle by marriage — in violation of the Kansas Open Meetings Act.
During Monday night’s meeting, however, Meyers noted that the city had just received an A+ rating from a nonprofit, pro-transparency organization.
The Sunshine Review of Alexandria, Va., gave Shawnee the rating for “enhancing their website and increasing access to information.”
“Shawnee is proactively championing government openness and transparency,” the organization said in a release.