Town efforts to improve transparency around meeting minutes

Above: A recent example of meeting minutes posted with documents used, allowing the public to access materials without filing a public records request. It is one of the ways the Town is trying to improve government transparency. (image cropped from Town website)

Recently, I’ve covered criticism of how the Town has handled meeting minutes. So, it’s only fair that I highlight the transparency improvements that I discovered as well.

The Town website now makes visible which minutes are still missing 45 days after a meeting was held. In addition, documents used in meetings are now being posted along with minutes.* According to Town Clerk Jim Hegarty, all agendas, minutes and documents will be searchable and ADA compliant for screen readers.

Documents are considered “used at a meeting” under the definition from the Attorney General’s office:

  • Physically present, and
  • Identified by name, and
  • Its contents are discussed at the meeting.

In another effort to make access to documents easier, the Town is also about to launch an improved layout on the website. Agendas, minutes, and related documents will be listed side by side. That’s instead of the current format that posts agendas and minutes on separate pages.

I had reached out to Hegarty for an update on minutes after I came across a slew of the “Request for Minutes” notices. Missing minutes is nothing new, but publicly posting internal requests from the Town for missing documents is. (It looks like postings started on October 22nd.) The Request links appear where the related minutes would normally be posted. Links open memos from Town Clerk’s office staff to addressed to the chair or staff for the board whose minutes aren’t posted. They read:

Southborough Town Code § 9-25 requires that minutes of each public meeting and the documents used at the meeting be submitted to the Town Clerk within 45 days of the meeting and that the Town Clerk notify the board or committee chair when that reporting requirement is not met.

I’m writing to advise you that as of today, the Town Clerk’s Office has not received the minutes and documents used at the [date] meeting of the [committee].

Memos then prompt the committee to respond if there is an explanation for lack of minutes. I reached out to Hegarty to find out if boards and committees had been warned of the coming change. He said that they were well notified of the change, which was months in the making. He explained:

There are many legitimate reasons why minutes may not be ready within 45 days of the meeting (the board hasn’t met again, etc.) , but by posting that notice, we’re assuring the public that we’re working to help keep all board and committees proactive in publishing the minutes. We’ll also post any response from the board explaining why the minutes aren’t available. Once the minutes are posted, we’ll remove the notice re missing minutes. But we do anticipate maintaining the “missing minutes notice” for minutes for executive session meetings that have not been posted.

It’s worth noting that the Board of Selectmen appear to have caught up on posting their minutes. While there are many redactions to Executive Session Minutes, it looks like all of their minutes prior to 45 days ago (starting with 2013) have been posted.

The Town Clerk acknowledged that he expects there will be bumps in the road. But he was hopeful about the improvements:

There are several advantages to this new process:

  • This significantly improves the public’s access to important documents.
  • The search feature also makes the documents more informative.
  • This fulfills the requirements of the OML.
  • This also fulfills the requirements of the Town Code.
  • This will likely lead to fewer Public Records Requests because the documents are already available to the public.
  • It easily allows the public to identify which boards/committees are making the effort to quickly publish minutes.
  •  It ensures that each board/committee fulfills its obligation under the Public Records Law and the requirement that minutes of meetings be retained forever.

To accomplish this lengthy task, we reviewed all agendas posted by each of these 50 boards/committees all the way back to August of 2016 which is when the Clerk became responsible for keeping minutes. We notified each board/committee and asked them to send us the minutes which hadn’t been submitted previously. We had 3 people independently verify that we had properly posted the submitted minutes for each agenda or noted that the meeting was cancelled/no quorum, etc. Then we asked each board/committee for the missing minutes, and did 2 independent verifications that we had everything properly posted.

We’ve tested the new combined agenda/minutes webpage and it works very well. I’m sure we’ll have a learning curve to overcome, but I think we’re implanting something that will be very helpful to the residents.

Hegarty credited others who had critical roles in these changes. He thanked Tim Litt for guiding them on the path for posting searchable documents. And he wrote:

None of this would be possible without the hard work of Lynne McKay, Sally Watters, Steve Whynot, our new Assistant Town Clerk Amy Berry, and our IT Manager Tom Laflamme.

For an example of recent minutes posted with documents used, click here to see the materials and minutes from the Advisory Committee’s 10/22/19 meeting.

I wondered about the lack of documents for recently posted BOS minutes. Hegarty pointed out that the 45 days have yet to pass. Of course, selectmen generally include a packet of materials with the agenda prior to the meeting. But those documents are often not searchable. Hegarty responded:

We’ve offered to post packets for all boards/committees who chose to post packets which ensures the information will be ADA compatible and searchable. (We’ve also offered to “Bates stamp” each document in the packet so it’s easier for the public as well as the board/committee members to look at a particular page during the meeting when someone references a page #. For example, there could be several multi-page documents in the packet and each may have a page #2. By “Bates stamping” each page with a sequential number in the bottom left corner of the page, it’s easy for everyone to follow along and quickly find the page being discussed. I’ve attached an example.) 

Some boards are taking his office up on the offer and others aren’t. Since the packets aren’t required to be posted under OML, the boards are free to decide for themselves how to handle that. Since not every document in the advance packet will always meet the threshhold for “used in the meeting”, some may not end up posted under the minutes.

*The posted materials applies to meetings October 1, 2019 or later.

Updated (11/21/19 8:51 am): I inserted the missing link for the example I cited above.

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3 years ago

It is important to note that the town owes thanks to all those who who shed light on the many years of shortcomings. None of the minutes would have been released in the first instance without the immense work and persistence to push for compliance with Open Meeting Law. All of these new improvements are a direct result of hard work for better transparency and better functioning government. While the new improvements are a good step, no amount of education will offset those who are provided with copies of the law, but do not comply. The minutes are the only way for the working public to know what is going on. This BOS is irritated with the admonishments and the mandatory education. They have barely mentioned previous violations under “other business” category on the agenda. As the AGO found, the violations are “egregious” and “go to the heart of Open Meeting Law.” It is all about the substance contained in the minutes and conducting business in the open.

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