A matter of minutes

City clerk explains delay in posting city council records

City Clerk Deborah Presson (right) and Assistant City Clerk Dani Brinkley counting ballots at a Chico City Council meeting.

City Clerk Deborah Presson (right) and Assistant City Clerk Dani Brinkley counting ballots at a Chico City Council meeting.

Tom Gascoyne

The most recent Chico City Council meeting minutes available either online or in print are from the Jan. 15 council meeting. This seven-month delay has some folks concerned and wondering why the city clerk is so far behind in writing and posting reports of council actions taken at council meetings.

A petition has been filed, according to a recently emailed press release, “asking Chico City Council to release the minutes for the past six months of City Council meetings.”

The press release includes comments from former city Councilman David Guzzetti who says, “With all of the changes that have occurred in Chico this year, it is obviously in the public interest that the minutes be disclosed.”

Local activist and regular council attendee Kelly Meagher asks in the press release, “Isn’t that why we have a city clerk?”

The press release concludes: “With bipartisan support, the group thinks that it will have no problem eventually gaining access to the delinquent City Council minutes. ‘In the end, it really is just about asking the government to do its job. We understand that it is a difficult time financially, but that is not an excuse for denying citizens access to public records,’ says Jessica Allen.”

Allen, the local political activist behind the petition, says she recently filed a public-records request that “received the response that the minutes ‘have not yet been prepared.’”

City Clerk Deborah Presson says there has always been a delay in posting the minutes, which she puts together for approval from the council before posting. She said there is no statute-enforced deadline on posting the minutes like there is on responding to a public-records request, which further delays getting to the minutes. In the past week, she’s had to respond to 21 such requests.

On Dec. 4 of last year, the council approved the minutes from the Aug. 7, Aug. 21, Sept. 4, Sept. 18 and Oct. 2 meetings. On April 16 of this year, the Oct. 23 and Nov. 6 meeting minutes were approved. Those have all been posted.

The Jan. 2 council-meeting minutes include a more than 1,000-word recount of a single item—the discussion and vote on a plastic-bag ordinance. Those minutes were subsequently approved at the council’s June 4 meeting and then posted online.

“The council is very much aware of the status of the minutes,” Presson said. “The thing is, that information is available on the webpage the day after a meeting—in video. I don’t know what the concern is about the minutes.”

Presson, who’s been city clerk for 14 years, said the council voted to have videos of the meetings posted online the day after the meeting is held “for the sake of transparency.”

“As far as the minutes go, yes, they are the final record,” she said. “I don’t know if there is a concern that things aren’t being implemented or what the actual concern is. Having said that, we are working to get them caught up.”

Local activist Jessica Allen of Chico Conservation Voters holds a sign protesting the Measure A ordinance in 2011, which would have moved City Council elections from November to June. The measure failed.

Photo by Tom Gascoyne

Allen says the law requires “that a request for minutes should be fulfilled ASAP” and that hers was not.

“The precedent for delay should be investigated further to determine if, in fact, minutes have not been made available in the past as they are now currently not being made available,” Allen said. “ … [T]here is an obvious lack of transparency going on in city government right now. This needs to be rectified.”

Councilman Mark Sorensen supports Presson and said he doesn’t see a problem.

“State law doesn’t have any statutory time limit,” he said. “And the videos are on the website. I think the city clerk is preparing two months’ worth to get approved on the meeting next Tuesday [Sept. 3].”

The council agenda for that meeting called for approval of the Jan. 24, Feb. 5 and Feb. 15 meetings.

“The council members look them over to make sure they are accurate, and then vote to approve them,” Sorensen said. “I don’t think it’s an anomaly. I think that it’s typically been in the time-frame [of] from three to 12 months. I can recall years ago when I was trying to get on the Planning Commission, I think they were missing two years’ worth [of minutes]. I’ve looked at other cities trying to find minutes, and I think the three-to-12-month fluctuation for council minutes is pretty typical.”

Mayor Scott Gruendl also questions the urgency of updating the council minutes.

“People just are too lazy to watch a council recording,” he said by email. “While the minutes are the official record of the council, there is absolutely no way to deny what is in a video recording.”

He also noted that requests for public documents take precedent over typing up and posting the council-meeting minutes.

“The folks that prepare the minutes are also the ones that must respond to the info requests,” he said. “When one puts these two points together, well, it just looks like some people are trying to make life difficult for a couple of hard-working city clerks, and that is nothing more than being mean.”

Presson said that back in 2000, the council voted unanimously to have only the action taken at meetings included in the minutes, and as such, doing away with further details. (The action is who made a motion on a matter and who seconded that motion, and then recording the vote tally.)

“What I have been doing and why I am behind is because of the seriousness of the discussions that have been going on lately,” she said. “I took it upon myself to try to put in more detailed discussion, and what I find I’m going to probably have to do is, instead of having all that detail in the minutes, I’m just going to do action only.

“I was well-intentioned by wanting to do more detailed minutes,” Presson said, “but what it’s done is [that] typically for one hour of video it takes me five to six hours just to capture the essence of the discussion. I think what I’m probably going to do is eliminate that, and go back to action only.

“But the videos are still available. What I thought might be a benefit for the community has in essence gotten me a little bit behind.”