2015-03-20 / Front Page

Council deadlocks on ‘transparency’ concern

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland City Council has reached an impasse over a request that it include public commentary in the official minutes of its proceedings.

At a March 9 workshop, three councilors — Tom Blake, Brad Fox and Patti Smith — agreed with Orchard Street resident Patricia Whyte that meeting minutes should include a summary of comments made, questions posed and requests submitted by audience members. Meanwhile, Councilors Maxine Beecher and Claude Morgan, along with Mayor Linda Cohen, said official minutes should be limited to a recording of votes conducted and actions taken.

With the council deadlocked 3-3, Cohen said a decision about reformatting the minutes would have wait until another time.

“I do think we need Melissa here, because we need to get an idea how she feels about this,” Cohen said, referring to Councilor Melissa Linscott, who was absent from the meeting.

Linscott did not respond to an email from the Sentry requesting her position on the issue.

Perhaps ironically, it was Linscott who brought the question forward — with a second from Blake, as assent from two councilors is generally needed in South Portland to land an item on a workshop agenda.

Linscott and Blake made their plea at the Jan. 21 council meeting, following a formal request issued by Whyte that the council amend the format of its minutes.

During the second “citizen discussion” period that night, Whyte stood to express frustration over not being able to find evidence in the minutes of recent questions raised by residents or answers provided by City Manager Jim Gailey.

South Portland generally records the names and addresses of people who speak at council meetings, but not what they said. This, Whyte noted, differs from the practice in Scarborough and Cape Elizabeth, as well as Westbrook, Bath and Brunswick.

“During citizen’s discussion time, nothing that a single citizen states is recorded in the minutes,” Whyte said. “So, unless the mayor and the councilors and the city manager are listening very closely, have incredible memories and are taking copious notes, they have no idea when they go back into the minutes what a single citizen has said at any time during a single meeting.”

Whyte asked that South Portland’s minutes adopt a format similar to surrounding towns.

“I think it is important for total transparency, so that anybody can go into these minutes and see what has been discussed,” she said.

At the March 9 workshop, Blake called that request “a no-brainer.”

“Out of respect alone we should include these [comments],” he said.

Fox went one step further, saying letters and emails sent to the council also should be included in the minutes, or at least made available for review on the city website.

In response, Cohen, who logged more than two decades as city clerk in both South Portland and Portland, recalled that “years ago,” residents would often request that their letters be “read into the record.” But in the modern age, she said, it “would be a very slippery slope” for the council to decide which emails to publish, given the impracticability of posting everything sent to each councilor.

“I’m not sure that there is a way for the public to ever know all of the emails that the city council gets, and all of the phone calls we get, and all the different ways city councilors are contacted outside these chambers,” said Mayor Linda Cohen.

Citing “Roberts Rules of Order,” Cohen said, “I’m not even sure the councilor comments made during ‘round robin’ should be included.”

The fact that general comments made by councilors are recorded in meeting minutes, while issues raised by residents are not, was a concern cited by Whyte.

Cohen said during her city clerk tenure in the 1990s, it was the council’s practice to record public commentary in the minutes, and that she spent an inordinate amount of time dealing with complaints from residents that she had mischaracterized or misquoted what they had said. That, Cohen claimed, was a time suck current clerk Susan Mooney can ill-afford, given the expanded role the clerk’s office had taken on over the years.

“I’m sitting here and I’m squirming. And the reason is because I’m the one who got the minutes to appear the way they do now,” Cohen said, referring to the current style, also adopted in Portland, as “action minutes.”

“If people want to know what members of the public had to say at a meeting, they can always refer to the video,” Cohen said.

All council meetings and workshops are recorded by South Portland Community Television and archived on the city website.

“The real verbatim record of out meetings is that video,” she said. “There isn’t anything that’s more transparent than that.”

However, both Blake and Smith said a summary of public comments in the minutes would be useful, as an alert of sorts pointing out that there might something on the video worth looking for. Both also said they got a lot of use out of planning board minutes, which do detail public commentary.

However, Cohen said the planning board is required to make a more complete record of its proceedings.

“There’s a big difference between us and the planning board and the board of appeals because they’re quasijuridical boards and we’re not. We take action,” she said. “Council minutes are a record of the actions the city council takes, not what the public thinks.”

Still, Blake said “a line or two” summarizing each audience members comment should be recorded for posterity.

“It helps to understand why we did what we did,” he said, adding that, at a minimum, minutes should include answers from Gailey to questions posed by the public.

Meanwhile, Morgan took the opposite tack.

While Robert’s Rules does say, “minutes should contain mainly a record of what was done at the meeting, not what was said,” it also notes that, “minutes should be kept in a substantial book or binder.”

“When Mr. Roberts was writing his rules, people were still dipping quills into inkwells,” Morgan said. “I believe the minutes are something of a quaint artifact.

“To me it’s sort of laughable to the point where this is not a question of public transparency but a question of technology. Is there even a reporter in this room tonight? There is not, because they are just going to review the tape, which is our permanent record now.

“I don’t want a lot more staff time reflecting more detail in the minutes,” Morgan said. “I would actually just as soon see them gone. I say let’s eliminate them.”

“Well, I think there’s a happy medium somewhere,” Blake said.

Meanwhile, archived video is the only record of what Cohen, Whyte or anyone else said at the March 9 meeting. The council does not keep minutes of its workshop sessions at all.

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