2016-05-20 / Community

Town seeks meeting minutes makeover

By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — A resident’s complaint about the delayed pace at which meeting minutes from local boards and committees are posted online may soon lead to a change in policy.

At their May 10 meeting, selectmen debated setting a new deadline for submitting finalized minutes to Town Clerk Merton Brown, to be posted on the town website.

Current policy calls for minutes to be submitted within two weeks of being approved. However, because some committees don’t finalize minutes until signed by every member who was at the meeting in question, while others may not meet again for many months, selectmen want to create new deadline – one month from the date of the meeting covered by the minutes.

“I think it’s important that we get the minutes out,” Selectman Dan Boothby said. “If these committees are doing the people’s business, they should be out there.”

Selectmen briefly considered extending the 30-day limit suggested by Town Manager Barry Tibbetts to 45 days. However, Town Attorney Natalie Burns noted that some groups – including the planning board, the site plan review board and the zoning board of appeals – make decisions that can be appealed in court.

“What we hear very frequently, particularly in Kennebunk, is that people who want to bring appeals would like to have a copy of the minutes,” she said.

The deadline to appeal a decision of the zoning board of appeals is 45 days, while the planning board and site plan review board both have a 30-day time limit. In two cases, those deadlines are in state statute, or set by court rulings, while the third is governed by local ordinance, making all three either impossible, or at least difficult to change.

Moreover, Burns said, once an appeal is filed, it sets a clock running on filing briefs with the court.

“If they’ve got 45 to 60 days, their brief might be due before the minutes are finalized,” Burns said. “They can file the initial appeal, but if they [the minutes] aren’t ready by the time they are putting their record together – which has happened a couple of times – then that’s a problem, and that’s what you want to address.”

Selectmen did consider allowing extra time to complete minutes if a meeting was very long or complicated, but ultimately decided that leeway should only come with Tibbetts’ express permission.

The upshot, Tibbetts said, is that if the change of policy is approved, some committees will have to change their own policies – to require that majority of members present at a meeting approve minutes, instead of all of them – while others may have to call special meetings just to sign minutes, if they have no other business before the submission deadline.

However, no actual changes are required in the minutes themselves.

“Under the state Freedom of Access Act, all the minutes are required to contain are the motions and the votes, but Kennebunk has very good recording secretaries who produce much more detailed minutes than that and therefor provide the public with a really good idea of what happened at the meetings, and the nature of the discussions,” Burns said. “I would not like to see that change.”

For those who want to know what happened at a meeting, but don’t want to wait even 30 days for official minutes, Brown pointed out an audio recording of most sessions is available for review in his office. And, of course, video of those meetings that are recorded can be streamed on the town website.

It is also worth noting that Kennebunk is under no legal obligation to supply most meeting minutes. State law (Title 1, Chapter 13, Section 403) states that the presence of an audio or video record satisfied the requirement to maintain minutes, and that “advisory bodies that make recommendations but have no decision making authority,” are not required to produce meeting records at all.

However, Maine law does note that whenever minutes are created, they are public documents, a point made clear in the Open Government Guide updated in 2011 by attorneys Jonathan Piper and Sigmund Schutz for the The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Also, there is no statutory requirement that minutes be voted on and approved by a board or committee, only that they be “must be made within a reasonable period of time after the proceeding and must be open to public inspection.”

According to a 2003 report of the Maine Freedom of Information Coalition, released following a statewide audit of public records compliance conducted the year before, “There is no language in the law that requires public records to be in ‘final’ form to be viewed, so draft documents fall under the definition of public records.”

That report also states, “there is no language in the law defining when access to public documents is to be granted, which means people do not have to wait for access without good reason. Generally courts have ruled that access is to be granted when asked. If not granted within five days, courts consider inaction to be a denial of access.”

Staff Writer Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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