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When minutes take years

May 22, 2001

When minutes take years



Hagerstown has many distinctions, and it reached another milestone last week: I guarantee you, the Hagerstown City Council is the only such board to make newspaper headlines by agreeing to approve its own meeting minutes.

In case you have never attended a City Council, County Commissioners or School Board meeting, here's how things generally go.

The presiding officer calls for the reading of the minutes, or notes, from the previous meeting. In a few places, not many, the clerk will actually read the minutes, a process that is more enjoyable for the onlookers than sticking your hand in an automotive fan, but less enjoyable than tweezing eyebrow hairs. Public meetings are generally bad enough the first time you sit through them and most people have no desire to repeat the carnage.

So usually what will happen is that one of the groups' members moves that the reading of the minutes be dispensed with and the presiding officer then asks if they're any additions or corrections to the minutes.

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Generally, there is one Stanley Stickler on the panel who will say "You know on page four, paragraph 12, this states that I said that we should try AND fix the sidewalk at 2987 W. Avalanche St., when I distinctly remember what I actually said was that we should try TO fix the sidewalk..."

After much sighing and eye-rolling, someone will finally move that the minutes be approved, at which point they will become the official record of the panel for all time, in case historians in the year 3076 want to go back and find out the low bid for the Town of Smithsburg copy machine.

Well, the City of Hagerstown has had this little, uh, problem. Through a number of years, the city fell behind in typing up its minutes for the council's approval.

It has gradually been catching up, but last week found the council with 81 sets of minutes dating back through 1997 awaiting approval.

Well, the council balked at approving the archives because 1.) nobody wanted to read 81 sets of minutes and 2.) it would be hard to remember whether or not four-year-old details contained in the minutes were accurate.

But without approval, they weren't official, meaning there would be no verifiable record to city activity. So if a reporter went back to the minutes of a 1998 meeting and discovered a council member had voted to execute the city dog catcher, the council member could say "No, the minutes are wrong. I did not vote to execute the city dog catcher, I only voted to maim him."

So you would have these nebulous documents floating around, giving a record, sort of, of what might or might not have happened in municipal government. You see the problem.

Under pressure, the city finally decided to approve the minutes with one councilman insisting on the proviso - and you have to love this - that they are not necessarily accurate.

I'm sort of disappointed they are validating the historic record of the city. It would be much more fun to have this sort of fluid record, virtual minutes, so to speak, of the city's activity.

Heck, people could go back and rewrite history any way they wanted:

"Nov. 21, 1997. Council votes 4-0 to solve world hunger. Council member Susan Saum-Wicklein abstains."

Council members seem put upon that they will actually have to go back and read all 81 sets. Like any elected official ever thoroughly reads the minutes under the best of circumstances.

And if they view all this extra reading as a chore, well keep in mind that - hello - they could have easily avoided this pickle by not so grossly falling behind with their minutes in the first place.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist

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