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No plans to finish missing minutes

March 11, 2000|By DAN KULIN /Staff Writer

Almost 200 meetings of Hagerstown's Mayor and City Council since 1987 may never be formally documented, despite a requirement to do so under the state's open meetings law.

Since a state board ruled in November that the city violated the Maryland Open Meetings Act for not having minutes for all its council meetings, City Clerk Gann Breichner has been compiling minutes for all meetings of the current mayor and council.

However, Breichner said there are no plans to finish or approve minutes from council meetings before Mayor Robert E. Bruchey II and two new council members took office in June 1997.

"We didn't see in the decision from the (compliance) board where we were required to go back to prior administrations," City Administrator Bruce Zimmerman said.

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Zimmerman said the city attorneys advised they complete only the minutes from meetings of the current council.

Notes of many meetings do exist. The notes are transcribed into minutes after the council reviews and votes on them. Some city politicians say there should be notes for every meeting, even if the notes are never voted on.

"We'll at least have them even if we can't approve them," Bruchey said.

Councilman William M. Breichner, who is married to the city clerk, said the council wouldn't vote on the minutes from previous councils. But with completed notes there would at least be a better record of what happened, he said.

Notes from the many voting sessions that do not have minutes are available to the public. But notes were not done for most work sessions, which are council meetings where issues are discussed but not voted on.

Councilman Lewis C. Metzner, in office since October 1994, said the council could vote on minutes of meetings from prior administrations because all council meetings are tape-recorded.

Former Mayor Steven T. Sager, who was in office from 1985 to 1997, said the council should act to approve minutes from all voting sessions while he was in office because "you need a record of the actions."

Sager said the older minutes could include a footnote explaining the minutes were approved by a different group of council members than those who participated in the original meetings.

"It's a choice between nothing at all or that," Sager said.

Sager said he often asked that minutes be drafted but they were not.

"We can ask for minutes and we can grump about them but we can't produce the minutes," he said.

Two City Councilmen say they are not concerned about leaving minutes from prior administrations undone.

"It's too late. Water over the dam," said Councilman J. Wallace McClure.

Councilman Alfred W. Boyer said if it was up to him he wouldn't want minutes completed for meetings that happened more than a year ago.

"I don't believe in wasting resources on past history," Boyer said.

Susan Saum-Wicklein, who has been on the council since 1987, said she needed to hear the plan from Zimmerman or clerk Breichner before commenting.

In November, the Maryland Open Meetings Compliance Board ruled the mayor and council violated the Open Meetings Act for not having minutes prepared in a timely manner. The ruling was in response to a complaint filed by The Herald-Mail Co.

The compliance board's ruling stated, "While the Compliance Board understands that the current administration may not be aware of the reason for the lack of minutes for meetings held so long ago and may not be able to rectify the problem, nevertheless, the absence of these minutes is a violation of the Act."

Minutes are an official record of what was said or done by a government body during a meeting, and have been required since the Open Meetings Act was adopted in 1976.

Minutes for meetings of the Washington County Commissioners are written by the County Clerk in time to be approved at the next meeting.

Zimmerman said from now on the city clerk will work to have minutes ready for approval at the following City Council meeting.

There are no minutes for at least 271 meetings of Hagerstown's Mayor and City Council since 1987.

There are no minutes for at least 78 meetings of the current mayor and council, who began meeting June 2, 1997. The council has approved minutes for every meeting since July 1, 1999, except the most recent meetings.

For the 10 years prior to the current mayor and council taking office, there are at least 193 mayor and council meetings without approved minutes. It is unknown whether minutes for another 28 meetings since 1987 have been approved or not.

Draft copies of minutes for those 28 meetings are available at City Hall and have been signed but lack an approval date. Gann Breichner, who has been city clerk since December 1982, said a signature on the minutes usually, but not always, means they have been approved.

She said one reason for the high number of meetings without approved minutes is it was the normal practice not to prepare minutes from council work sessions.

The compliance board stated that work sessions are meetings required by law to have minutes.

The city clerk said minutes for work sessions would be done if there was a specific request to prepare them.

Of the meetings from 1987 through May 1997, at least 140 of the 193 meetings that lack approved minutes were work sessions. Since the current council took office, 38 of the 78 meetings without approved minutes were work sessions.

Jack Schwartz, assistant attorney general and counsel to the Open Meetings Compliance Board, declined to say whether the city's plan to approve minutes for the current administration but not for previous administrations complied with the board's ruling.

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