Members of the City of Portsmouth have commented on issues of transparency, as questions come up regarding accuracy of Council meeting minutes.
Currently, citizens who do not or cannot attend City Council meetings, can access information from the meetings through a couple different avenues. They can access minutes of the meeting by visiting the City website at portsmouthoh.org. Until recently, the audio for those meetings were not available online. The only way to access them was through a request of the City Clerk. Individuals making such requests could pick up an audio CD of the meeting for a fee of $1. The minutes were more readily available and accessible at no fee, making them an easier option. However, the degree to which the minutes were actually representative of what took place during a Council meeting,was not something that Council members could agree upon.
Council woman and former City Clerk Jo Ann Aeh, explained that she did not feel that minutes needed to be transcribed word-for-word, but she was able to explain what minutes should reflect.
“These are minutes not transcriptions,” she began. “Minutes, of a public body, by law, should allow someone who is reading them, 50 years from now, to be able to understand the thinking process of what went into making a particular decision. For instance – if a matter came before Council about which I had some concerns and I stated those concerns, the minutes should read that ‘Councilwoman Aeh objected to the proposal. She felt it would not be fair to a certain segment of the city, because of their proximity to that area, they would not be able to participate in the activity,’ It would not be necessary to use any of my exact words to convey what I felt. If it was a matter of which I voted ‘nay’ it would be apparent to any one reading the minutes as to why I voted ‘nay.’ The purpose of the preamble, on all our ordinances, is to provide a clear concise explanation of the purpose of the ordinance. The minutes would reflect this preamble, in its entirety, and my paraphrased concern for why I could not vote for it, should make it easy for someone reading the minutes to understand my vote. Minutes are not meant to be verbatim. I did the minutes for almost 24 years and, while I sometimes went into more detail, I feel the minutes being provided to us by the present City Clerk are as they should be. I have been sitting in the 2nd Ward seat for more than 1 1/2 years now and this is the first time I have heard anything about her minutes not being adequate.”
Mayor Jim Kalb’s only comment was that the current way of doing the minutes has been the practice for more than 20 years.
“I’m always open to possibilities and suggestions for improvement and/or change. Just convince me of the need,” he added.
Councilman Kevin E. Johnson explained that he likes that the minutes clean up the language used in the meetings, stating, “I appreciate the fact that Clerk Ratliff many times cleans up my “Uh’s”, “Huh’s”, and sometimes “Duh’s” from the minutes, while still conveying the intent of the message or thought that I’m trying to express,” he stated. “However, I would go along with either, actual or summarize of the minutes.”
However, Councilman Tom Lowe had a different opinion. Lowe stated that after reviewing the minutes and audio, he did not feel the minutes summarized the meetings, stating that at times there is a lengthy discussion on an item and the minutes do not include the discussion, only a statement of how everyone voted by indicating a number of “ayes” and “nays.”
Lowe stated that he does not want to criticize the City Clerk Diana Ratliff, who keeps the minutes. However, he feels the meetings should be video recorded and has even considered asking Council to look at the possibility of live streaming meetings for those who cannot attend.
Lowe explained that even with the audio available, there are major issues. The audio is barely audible from disc or online, and the audio and minutes end when the Council meeting adjourns, not including the City Manager’s Conference (which must be accessed separately from the City Manager’s page). Furthermore, at times the mics cut out, making a poorly recorded audio even more difficult to understand.
“These meetings need to reflect in the record what is actually happening, and the only way I can see for that to happen is for the meetings to be video recording,” Lowe stated.
Lowe also added that there should be an accurate and accessible record of the City Manager’s Conference meeting as well.
Though Lowe says he is not saying the corruption is happening, he said that without an accurate record of the meetings, corruption becomes possible.
The discussion on Council meeting records was opened up to all members of the Portsmouth City Council and to the City Clerk. Those who responded are the only who chose to comment.
The City Clerk has started updating the City’s website to include the audio of Council meetings. Audio is available online for all 2017 meetings up until and including July 24. Thus, making it possible for the public to compare audio to minutes.
Council minutes and audio can be found, along with Council agendas, by visiting https://portsmouthoh.org/site-page/2017-agenda-minutes-and-audio.
Portsmouth City Council meeting again at 6 p.m. on Monday in Council Chambers at the Municipal Building on Second Street in Portsmouth.
Reach Nikki Blankenship at 740-353-3101 ext. 1931.