Editorial: It’s important to keep a full written record of public meetings


There’s been a bit of debate over the last several weeks regarding the optimal way to record the minutes of the Brandon Selectboard meetings.  One might not assume the topic would generate much interest, but there have been impassioned arguments both in favor of and in opposition to the changes that the Brandon Selectboard proposed, adopted, and now abandoned.

Until a few weeks ago, the Board’s recording secretary, Charlene Bryant, tried to capture in the minutes as much of the actual discussion at the meetings as possible.  Her written minutes were then distributed after the meetings to the Board for examination, correction, and approval at the following public session.

The debate over the minutes began when Board member Tim Guiles expressed frustration with the generosity of detail in this approach, feeling that it was unnecessarily difficult to search the written minutes for the outcomes of particular motions, as they were often couched within larger conversations.  The Board agreed to try a more streamlined method in which motions and outcomes would be emphasized and the surrounding discussions would be abbreviated or summarized in some way.  The thought was that the minutes should be a record of outcomes, not conversations, and that the full conversations would be available to the public in the video recordings of the sessions.

Once the change was publicized, the pushback from the community was immediate.  And at the following Selectboard meeting, several Board members reported having received negative feedback from Brandon residents.  The Reporter even spoke up during that meeting to express concern about the new approach.  The Board reversed course and asked Ms. Bryant to resume her previous, detailed method of minutes-taking.  

At last night’s Selectboard meeting, however, the issue came up again when Mr. Guiles expressed his continued frustration with the minutes, pointing out two inaccuracies in the previous meeting’s minutes, one involving information he had presented and one involving something he had said.  Mr. Guiles argued again that it would be preferrable to use the minutes to highlight motions and outcomes and let the video recordings be the transcripts.  The rest of the Board resisted the suggestion this time and asked Ms. Bryant to continue with her more detailed approach.  

I think the Board made the right decision.

Mr. Guiles has a point that it can be tedious to read minutes, especially those for meetings as long and talky as Selectboard meetings can sometimes be.  But Ms. Bryant’s approach had always been to present motions and outcomes in boldface, even when preceded by lengthy discussions.  And the various agenda items/discussion topics all receive their own headings as well.  It would seem that the harder task would be to find a specific comment in the minutes than to locate the outcome of a specific motion.

There’s a larger question at issue here as well: what is the point of taking minutes in the first place?  Our individual answers to the question will absolutely influence which approach we favor.  

If you wish the minutes to be simply a straightforward record of the business of the Selectboard, a streamlined approach makes a lot of sense.  The details of the discussions aren’t as important in this view as the decisions ultimately taken.  

But for many residents, the minutes are more than just a record of the Board’s actions; they’re also a way for residents who didn’t attend the meetings to get a full picture of the Board members’ perspectives and personalities, to let us know not just whether members are voting in a particular way but also how they justify those votes.  As voters ourselves, we should have access to that information.  

It’s a wonderful resource to have the video recordings available directly on the Brandon town website, right alongside the written minutes.  Anyone who wants to watch the videos has full access to them.  And they are a necessary backstop to help ensure that the written minutes are accurate.  But as someone who regularly watches videos of Selectboard meetings in various towns, I can assure you that the recordings are absolutely not an easy method for extracting information about particular topics.  It’s much easier to scan written minutes for headings and boldface than to try to figure out where in a two-hour-long recording the Board took a particular vote.  

It’s also not always easy to understand what’s being said in the recordings.  People speak quickly, they mumble, they’re too far from the mic, the mic itself doesn’t work well, there’s too much ambient noise…there are myriad reasons that the videos are sometimes frustrating, too.  If the written minutes have summarized a conversation and the audio in the recording isn’t clear, the full conversation may be entirely lost.

And that matters.

It matters for posterity.  When future generations go back to understand why certain decisions were taken, they need as full a picture as possible.  We need to understand why we did or did not do certain things in order to learn from our forebears’ successes and failures.  We need to understand our own history.  And we need to leave for our descendants and successors as much information about our decisions as possible.  Some of it may simply be the delight in having firsthand accounts of life in Brandon during particular periods: being able to read minutes from meetings in, say, the 1800s is a real treat for historians.  And down the road, folks may want to go back and understand how decisions were made during the Segment 6 project, for example.

And videos require a good deal of storage.  At a certain point, having all these 2-hour-long videos on the Brandon town website will become expensive and burdensome.  Where do we store them for the long haul?  This is an issue many organizations are facing now that we’re a few decades into the internet era.  And when technology changes—VHS tapes may be the classic example—how do we convert all these videos to the newest format to allow continued access?  Having a written record in addition to the video recording helps alleviate these concerns. 

And there’s also a matter of propriety in all this: is it the Selectboard’s place to decide which aspects of a discussion are “worth” memorializing in the written minutes?  If the minutes are literally only motions and votes, then again some of what the Board and Brandon residents themselves say at these meetings will be lost, since the videos are not always perfect.  And if the minutes summarize the conversations, who makes the decision as to what was worth preserving?  Ms. Bryant?  That’s a lot of pressure and responsibility for one person and, additionally, not an authority that she or anyone else should have when compiling the official record.

And The Reporter cannot fulfill this role, either, as has been suggested.  We have space constraints that prevent us from conveying everything that was said at Selectboard meetings.  We try to convey what seemed most important, and this often feels like a great responsibility.  I have personally been questioned, sometimes quite passionately, about things I included or omitted or described in a particular way.  And I have gotten things wrong and had to issue corrections.  I’ve also been wrongly accused of misreporting things it turned out I was right about.  This is completely normal and an expected part of the role, but neither I nor anyone else doing this job can be expected to convey the entirety of a meeting, and certainly not with 100% accuracy.  

At the end of the day, it should fall to the Recording Secretary to compile the official minutes, and it should be done to their fullest capacity in order to preserve the most detailed picture of what the Selectboard and attendees said and did.  The reason that the minutes are distributed to Board members for examination and then approval is to give them a chance to make corrections to the record before it becomes official and released to the public.  That’s simply part of the job.  And there’s nothing preventing Board members from taking their own notes during meetings, jotting down who made what motion and how everyone voted, if that’s the information that seems most important to them.

I’m glad the Board has allowed Ms. Bryant to return to her previous approach.  Perhaps the motions and votes could be brought to the beginnings of their respective agenda items in the minutes rather than left to the ends, if that would make perusal more efficient.  But the conversations themselves are an integral part of the record and should continue to be recorded as fully as possible in the written record.

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