Hagerstown City Council has minutes backlog

November 29, 1998|By JULIE E. GREENE

The Hagerstown City Council is the only elected body in Washington County that has a one-year backlog of unapproved meeting minutes.

Last Tuesday, council members approved minutes from three meetings in October and November for the first time in almost a year.

"It's always been a struggle," said City Clerk Gann Breichner, who has been responsible for the council's minutes for the last 16 years.

"I think you can talk to any city clerk anywhere who would agree with me that it is one of the most difficult aspects of the job," Breichner said.


However, a survey of the other eight municipalities in Washington County and at least four cities in the Tri-State area - Martinsburg, W.Va., Frederick, Md., and Chambersburg and Waynesboro in Pennsylvania - showed that Hagerstown was the only government with a backlog. The Washington County Commissioners and the county Board of Education also have up-to-date minutes.

Over the last 11 years, at least 33 months' worth of Hagerstown City Council minutes are missing or weren't approved.

More recently, the city council minutes between November 1997 and September 1998 haven't been approved.

This is not the first time Breichner has fallen behind on the minutes. It almost cost her her job in March 1989, when then-Councilman Robert G. Schleigh said then-City Administrator Stephen M. Feller recommended the council fire Breichner for not formally documenting minutes of council meetings for part of 1987 and 1988.

Schleigh said he recommended Breichner be suspended without pay for two weeks, but the council chose only to press upon Breichner the importance of getting caught up.

Breichner said she doesn't remember the possibility of her being disciplined for that backlog, but does remember the minutes becoming an issue.

Breichner said she doesn't have staff to help her with the minutes and her other duties, but a recent reshuffling of some responsibilities has allowed her to spend more time on the minutes.

"I have clearly welcomed this because I have been saying for a long time we need a lot of help. The workload is overwhelming," she said.

Often she has taken her notes home to type up minutes, she said.

Breichner has an assistant who spends one-fourth of her time working in the clerk's office handling vendor permits and helping the public. The rest of the assistant's time is spent working for the city's public information manager.

Breichner said the one-year backlog isn't acceptable, but as far as she knows it has never prevented anyone from getting information they wanted.

For every council meeting, Breichner said she has audiotapes, notes, agendas and motion statements for every vote. She also keeps an index of every law the council passes.

The only way the city code addresses the minutes is to say the council must keep "a journal of its proceedings," including votes.

City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman stressed that steps have been taken to ensure the minutes will be kept up to date in the future.

On Tuesday, the council approved minutes for the Oct. 27, Nov. 10 and Nov. 17 meetings of this year.

There are other gaps in the minutes.

Minutes are missing or weren't done for meetings in January, March, April, June and July 1988; March, April and October 1995; June 1996; August 1996 through May 1997; and July through September 1997.

The minutes became an issue again on Oct. 27, when Councilwoman Susan Saum-Wicklein said the city should send the Washington County Commissioners copies of the minutes since the commissioners send the council summaries of their meetings.

"There's audiotapes available, but the bottom line is we need to have the written documents approved and filed," Saum-Wicklein said.

Having minutes ready for approval from three meetings on Tuesday was "real progress," Saum-Wicklein said.

Breichner said it has been much easier to keep notes on the meetings since she began using a laptop computer in March 1998. She has drafts of the minutes from work sessions that just need to be edited, she said.

She said the minutes from the monthly voting sessions take longer. She writes those from scratch because she is busy recording votes during the fast-paced regular sessions. It took her 10 1/2 hours to type up 12 pages of minutes from the Oct. 27 voting session, she said.

Until recently Breichner also was responsible for preparing the weekly agenda and gathering supporting documents, which she said could take three days. That task has been reassigned.

She said it takes at least eight hours to follow up on a voting session, not including typing the minutes. Her duties include writing some proposed laws, obtaining signatures, preparing legal ads for new laws, distributing city documents to affected agencies, taking city code amendments to the publisher and working with the public.

Whenever there is a citizen at the City Clerk's counter, that person takes priority, Breichner said.

Councilman William M. Breichner, Breichner's husband, would not comment.

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