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City Council minutes fall behind the times

August 23, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

The Herald-Mail Co. filed a complaint Friday with a Maryland board alleging that the Hagerstown City Council is in violation of the state Open Meetings Act for failing to have approved written minutes for all council meetings.

Meanwhile, for the first time since January, the City Council is expected to approve minutes - almost two months' worth - on Tuesday. And City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said the city is planning to hire an intern to help complete the backlog of unapproved minutes.

In a complaint to the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board, The Herald-Mail Co. claimed that there are no minutes for at least three years' worth of meetings over a period spanning nearly 12 years. Periods with no available minutes include November 1997 through September 1998, and all of 1999 past the first week of January.

No city officials interviewed Friday contested the claims made in the complaint.

The compliance board has not officially notified the city of the complaint. The board is expected to do so this week.

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City officials did not comment directly on the complaint. But many said that the backlog of council meeting minutes should be addressed and corrected.

"I agree it needs to be done," said Councilwoman Susan Saum-Wicklein.

"This is an issue that the city administrator was directed to resolve. ... I suggested hiring stenography help," Saum-Wicklein said, referring to comments she made last November.

Councilman J. Wallace McClure said, "It's probably a legitimate complaint. ... This is an ongoing problem that should have been nipped in the bud either by adding staff, adjusting staff or readjusting priorities."

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner said, "I think it's an oversight and something that should be done."

Minutes are a written record of what happens at City Council meetings. To become official, the prepared minutes must be voted on and approved by the council.

The Maryland Open Meetings Act requires minutes to be completed "as soon as is practicable after a public body meets."

For more than 16 years, City Clerk Gann Breichner has been assigned the task of producing the minutes for all council meetings.

"We've committed to the mayor and council that she will remain current from this point forward," Zimmerman said. "But she's going to need some assistance for catching up with the backlog."

Zimmerman said the priority for now will be to catch up on the minutes for meetings since the current city administration took over in June 1997.

"I don't see how this council can adopt minutes from previous councils," Zimmerman said. He said he would discuss the situation with the city attorneys.

On Friday, Breichner was working on minutes from meetings in this month and in July.

She said that ideally, there would be approved minutes for all of the meetings, but other tasks have often gotten in the way.

Her other responsibilities include recording new laws in the courthouse, putting public notices in the newspaper, handling requests for information and dealing with the press and the public.

Breichner said the backlog has never prevented anyone from getting information on a subject.

She said all of the motions made, actions taken and laws passed by the mayor and council, which would be recorded in the minutes, are also documented separately.

Also, there are audio recordings of each meeting, and Breichner makes her meeting notes available.

McClure and Saum-Wicklein said that even if the law didn't require written minutes, they would still be important.

"The tapes can certainly augment the written record, but audio tapes are not a substitute for the written record," Saum-Wicklein said.

McClure said it would be easier and quicker for someone to search for a topic in written minutes than on a tape recording.

Gloria J. George, executive editor of The Herald-Mail, said, "Not having current minutes means a lot of questions about the council's actions cannot be easily answered by us or by the public."

Councilman William M. Breichner, Gann Breichner's husband, and Councilman Alfred W. Boyer could not be reached for comment.

This is not the first time missing minutes have become an issue.

Last November, a survey of the other eight municipalities in Washington County and four other 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 had up-to-date minutes.

And in March 1989, falling behind in the minutes almost cost Breichner her job, 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.

In November, 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.

This is the third time in 1999 that the Open Meetings Compliance Board has received a complaint against the council.

In July, the compliance board ruled that the mayor and council broke the law when they held a closed-door meeting on May 18 to discuss whether to offer the vacant Baldwin House complex to the University of Maryland. That complaint was also filed by The Herald-Mail Co.

In a separate complaint filed by former City Councilman Ira P. Kauffman Jr., the compliance board ruled that the city acted within its rights when it held preliminary budget discussions in closed session earlier this year.

The compliance board is expected to officially notify the city of the complaint regarding the minutes later this week. The city will have 30 days to respond. Then the board would be expected to issue an opinion within 30 days of receiving the city's response.

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