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City says it didn't violate minutes law

September 25, 1999|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Hagerstown's mayor and City Council have ample documentation for actions taken in meetings and are not in violation of state law regarding minutes, according to information filed by the city with the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board.

The information was filed in response to a complaint filed by The Herald-Mail newspapers, which contended that the mayor and council are in violation of state law because they don't maintain up-to-date minutes of official action for all public meetings.

The newspapers complained Aug. 20 that no minutes had been approved since January and that minutes were missing from at least 33 other months prior to 1999. Since the complaint was filed, the city approved minutes for six work sessions in July and August.

In a response to the complaint filed Sept. 21, an attorney for the city said all council actions on ordinances and resolutions are recorded separately. Also, audio tapes and notes taken by City Clerk Gann Breichner are available for public inspection.

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"Despite the fact that they are not in final form, and may not carry the official heading 'Minutes,' the type written notes and audio tapes of the Council meetings satisfy the content requirements of the (Open Meetings) Act for the minutes,'' wrote attorney Mark Boyer.

"They provide a record of each item considered, the action taken thereon, and each vote. These materials, which are available to the public, satisfy the City's obligation under the Act."

The city hired a part-time worker at $8-per-hour two weeks ago to help turn the notes and tapes into official minutes that can be approved by the City Council.

Minutes, an official written record of council meetings, are based on notes taken by Breichner during meetings and audio tapes of the meetings. Once the minutes are completed, council members vote to approve them.

Boyer told the compliance board the city had approved minutes for all voting sessions prior to January 1996. A spot check of the city's records Thursday showed there were no approved minutes for council meetings in March, April and October 1995 or January, March, April, June and July 1988.

Friday afternoon, city spokeswoman Karen Giffin produced unapproved minutes for an October 1995 voting session and special voting sessions and work sessions in February, March and April 1995.

Giffin said the minutes were "found" Friday. She did not know where they were found.

The compliance board also was told that type-written notes were available for all council meetings since March 1998.

However, notes from regular voting sessions in March, June and September 1998 were not included in the city's book of meeting notes made available to the public Thursday.

The notes describe aspects of meeting discussions. Within the notes many of the people who speak are referred to only by their initials.

The city's response also stated that although there are some minutes for work sessions, "It has never been the city's policy to prepare minutes for work sessions."

The only minutes the mayor and council approved since this summer have been for the six work sessions in July and August.

Kimberly Ward, an assistant attorney general at the compliance board office in Baltimore, said there should be minutes for all open council meetings, including work sessions. The Washington County Board of Education and the Washington County Commissioners maintain minutes of all their work sessions.

City officials declined to answer any questions about the response to the Open Meetings complaint.

"We're not going to reply to questions from the newspaper. ... (The city) will only respond to questions from the compliance board," Giffin said.

Boyer also declined to comment Friday.

City officials noted there are no approved minutes for at least 58 council voting sessions since January 1996, according to the city's written response.

The response also stated that the state law does not set a time limit on when minutes must be finished.

In addition, Boyer noted in the response that the Open Meetings Act "does not require that minutes of meetings be 'approved.' The requirement of the act is that minutes of the meetings be prepared."

The Open Meetings Act states: "As soon as practicable after a public body meets, it shall have written minutes of its session prepared."

The three-member compliance board is expected to issue an opinion on the matter within the next 30 days.

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