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Hagerstown cited for minutes violation

November 04, 1999|By KERRY LYNN FRALEY

The Hagerstown Mayor and City Council broke the law by failing to provide written minutes of meetings and work sessions in a timely manner, a state board ruled Thursday.

It was the second time in five months that the Open Meetings Compliance Board has found city officials in violation of the state Open Meetings Act.

The latest ruling stems from a complaint The Herald-Mail newspapers filed with the state board in August alleging City Council violated the state Open Meetings Act by not having minutes for more than three years' worth of meetings during a 12-year period.

The city isn't contesting the ruling and has taken steps to rectify the violation, City Administrator Bruce J. Zimmerman said Thursday.

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"Clearly, we took too long in getting the minutes prepared. We acknowledge that and know we need to do better," Zimmerman said.

There has been an effort in recent months to catch up on missing minutes for regular and special meetings and keep current with minutes for all Mayor and City Council meetings, including work sessions, he said.

"That's our commitment. We will prepare minutes on a cycle consistent with our meeting schedule," Zimmerman said.

The ruling commended the city's recent effort to prepare minutes for past meetings and said it expects the city to continue timely preparation of minutes.

In the complaint to the board, the newspapers claimed there were no minutes prepared for at least 120 meetings, including 10 meetings in 1988, two in 1995, and more than 50 regular and special meetings from January 1996 through mid-1999.

Minutes also were not prepared for many work sessions.

In his response to the newspapers' complaint on behalf of the Mayor and City Council, City Attorney Mark K. Boyer asserted the act hadn't been violated because it doesn't prescribe the precise form the minutes must take.

The response said the city was complying with the law because it makes typewritten notes and audiotapes of all meetings and a formal copy of every action taken by the City Council available to the public.

It hasn't been the city's policy to prepare minutes for work sessions, the response said.

The Open Meetings Act specifies that minutes be written "As soon as practicable after a public body meets," according to the ruling.

An audiotape can pose problems, including difficulty understanding or comprehending what the items of business are, how a member of the public body voted or which member made a particular motion, the ruling said.

"The written minutes record this information in a more efficient format for the public," the ruling said.

The board's ruling also addressed the phrasing "as soon as practicable."

"The absence of a specific time limit does not suggest that a public body is free to take as much time as it wants. The phrase 'as soon as practicable' means 'within a reasonable time,'" the ruling said.

"Obviously, the failure to prepare minutes for more than a decade cannot be justified," it said.

Their absence and the delay in preparing minutes from 1995 constitutes a violation of the act, the board ruled.

With the assistance of other city staff members and a part-time worker hired for the task, the City Clerk's office has caught up on all voting session records except for those from 1988, Zimmerman said.

While they've been prepared, the other previously missing minutes haven't been approved by the council. Missing minutes from work sessions haven't been prepared.

The city had been operating under the assumption that written minutes weren't required for work sessions because no action is taken, Zimmerman said.

Since August, minutes have been produced for all work sessions and regular and special meetings and approved at the regular monthly meeting that follows, he said.

"We've corrected the situation and don't think there will be a problem from here on out," Hagerstown Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II said.

In July, the compliance board ruled 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 System of Maryland.

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