2013-04-18 / Front Page

Minutes can take hours

Still, public comment may be excluded
By Patti Brandt of the Enterprise staff


MARGE JOHNSON, recording secretary for the Bingham Township Board, uses a laptop computer to record minutes of the township board’s regular monthly meeting Monday night. MARGE JOHNSON, recording secretary for the Bingham Township Board, uses a laptop computer to record minutes of the township board’s regular monthly meeting Monday night. Creating the minutes for public board and commission meetings around the county is a task that varies from one extreme to the other — especially when it comes to public comment.

At meetings of the Leelanau County Board of Commissioners, every single public comment is meticulously transcribed into the minutes, with one recent set containing 21 pages of comment that took more than 24 hours to get on paper.

Minutes from meetings of the Leland Township Board, however, only provide the name of the speaker and a oneword description of their topic.

For Michelle

Crocker, who has been the county clerk since

1996, adding all those comments tells a story.

“They’re historical minutes of the county,” Crocker said. “It would appear to me over all the years that when a decision is made that discussion really helps people understand why a decision was made. They may not agree, but they understand.”

In Leland Township minutes have always reflected the name of anyone who commented at a public meeting, along with their topic, said Clerk Jane Keen. A new policy just makes that formal, she said. It was prompted by a few citizens who speak at nearly every meeting and have complained that their comments are not recorded.

And they still won’t be, Keen said, as meeting minutes are not a forum for citizen positions. They are a recording of the business that took place.

But just what does the law say?

All public meetings must abide by the Michigan Open Meetings Act, which says that, “A person shall be permitted to address a meeting of a public body under rules established and recorded by the public body.” In place since 1977, the OMA supersedes local ordinances, resolutions or policies. Local units of government can adopt ordinances that require meetings to be more open than the act requires, but they cannot adopt policies that are more restrictive, or that restrict the public’s access to them.

What the public has to say or even who said it does not have to be recorded, according to the OMA. In fact, the law requires only that the date, time, place, members present and absent, any decisions made and the purpose for which a closed session is held be recorded. The result of roll call votes must also be recorded. Information over and above what is required by law may be added, but is not required.

“We exceed what is required by the law,” Crocker said.

It may take a lot of time, she said, but she feels the effort is worth it.

“If it was just motions it might not give you history, and that’s how we look at it,” she said. “Would it be easier to follow the letter of the law? Yes, but I think you have to weigh that with discussion.”

Most public bodies, including the Leland Township Board, give citizens two opportunities to speak — once at the beginning of a meeting, usually after the Pledge of Allegiance and roll call, and again at the end of the meeting, before adjournment.

Cal Little, Leland Township supervisor, said he will also allow citizens to have their say during the board discussion of a topic, as long as their comments are about that specific topic.

But a meeting, he said, is an opportunity for the township to do business and the public is allowed to watch.

“They are not a part of the meeting,” Little said. “Our meetings are open for public viewing. We want to encourage people to come. We want to encourage people to speak. But we want to encourage order so it doesn’t interrupt the meeting.”

For that reason, those who want to make comments are now being encouraged to use a podium, he said.

In Leelanau Township the names of those who make comments are recorded, but not their topic or any kind of synopsis of what they said.

“We don’t want to editorialize,” said Doug Scripps, township supervisor.

But if someone submits a written copy of what they’ve said, that document becomes a part of the minutes, he added. The township also tapes meetings, and the public is welcome to listen to them at the township office. Tapes are available for one year, after which they are destroyed, Scripps said.

Leelanau Township’s agenda includes two opportunities for the public to comment — at the beginning and end of each meeting.

While Scripps believes that the more public comments, the better, he also says that a board meeting is not a debate. Allowing people to comment during a board discussion may keep the board from doing its work, he said.

And if the topic is a hot button issue, things could quickly escalate into a situation in which people are yelling at each other and making verbal attacks.

“It’s appropriate to know what the public thinks, but not to have the public weigh in at that time,” Scripps said. “With that in mind, allowing comment at the beginning and end keeps the order.”

It usually takes Marge Johnson, the recording secretary for Bingham Township, about three hours to type up meeting minutes, which include detailed accounts of each comment and sometimes direct quotes. Johnson has been doing the job for about three years, but did the same kind of work for 35 years as administrative assistant in Garfield Township.

“I had to be specific,” Johnson said. “They counted on the minutes for the record ... It’s really up to the board as to how they want things done.”

At Bingham Township meetings, Johnson doesn’t use a tape recorder, but she types more than 100 words per minute on her laptop.

“I count on my hearing, which is really hard,” she said. She asks each speaker to state and spell their name, and sometimes asks them to repeat what they said. She said nobody seems to mind.

Crocker actually keeps separate binders on topics that are frequently before the commission, such as the Veterans Memorial, the Leland property and the Northport sewer. That way when citizens come in and want to know what happened she can give them the file.

“You can read my minutes and feel like you were at the meeting,” she said.

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