Minutes shouldn’t take months

Dr. Richard Ek is a retired Chico State University journalism professor and department chairman who contributes regularly to the Chico News & Review.

Last month I briefly discussed with the Chico Arts Commission the lack of online agendas and minutes for its September, October and November meetings. I pointed out that failure to post these items online in a timely manner does not serve the public interest, most particularly Chico’s large arts community.

I asked Mary Gardner, the city arts project coordinator who’s responsible for the omissions, to explain the delay. Her reply: “I just got backed up, that’s all.” Duh? Gardner said people can access this information elsewhere (in printed form).

Since most folks now use the instant convenience of the Internet, they should not be forced to run a City Hall errand to get important information. As Chairman Paul Friedlander said, “It is our duty to make the process as transparent and available as possible.”

Then I asked Gardner why she didn’t at least post the minutes online before they were approved. Her reply: “Oh no, we can’t do that. They have to be approved before they go on the Web site.” Her tone was so definite it implied a legal point.

Well, it’s perfectly legal to post such minutes with a note stating, “These minutes have not been approved.” If Gardner doubts me, the city attorney can dispel her doubts.

The commissioners finally approved the backlog of minutes last month. They did the same thing last March to clear an earlier three-month backlog. Thus, in the past year, we’ve had six months of zilch where posted agendas and minutes should have been.

Not that these bare-bones minutes, called “action-only” minutes, reflect everything that happened. Ordered by the City Council some dozen years ago for all city commissions, they reflect only actions and votes taken, not key elements of discussion or detailed proposals.

For example, a year ago, Gardner almost pushed through a controversial proposal, introduced via a memo attached to the agenda, that would have handed a $75,000 plum job to artist Dave Lawton without open bidding. But neither agendas nor minutes even mention Lawton or the revealing pro-and-con byplay.

We have two issues here: 1) the lack of timely agenda and minutes posting by Gardner, which her boss, Cindy Pierce, the administrative services director, needs to order corrected; and 2) the style of the minutes themselves, which the council needs to revisit. While action-only minutes tell too little, their opposite, “verbatim minutes,” provide a complete record that tells too much and challenges the city clerk to record them. What’s needed is a compromise style that distills discussion of major items.

The council should not wait on this one.