Our view: A step backward for transparency; Lake Elmo has it wrong with new recording policy

The foundation for a strong democracy is government transparency. In order to be informed and make good decisions, citizens must be allowed to know what the government is doing.

Last week Lake Elmo took a step backward — away from transparency — when the city council voted to limit recordings of public meetings.

In a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Mike Pearson and Councilmember Justin Bloyer dissenting, the council approved a policy that calls for the city not to record city council workshops, which it had recorded in recent years. The official city policy now says only regular city council, planning commission and parks commission meetings will be recorded.

The decision came after a request by Bloyer that the city record all public meetings, including those of the economic development authority and the human resources, finance and public safety committees. Pearson had also requested a policy requiring non-city public entities that meet in city facilities to video record their meetings.

But instead of expanding public access to government proceedings, the council chose to reduce access, arguing that meetings are already open for the public to attend and that the official minutes provide a sufficient record.

Under Minnesota law, that’s true — The Gazette does not believe the new policy violates any state statutes. But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s good policy.

Why stop recording public meetings when, according to a city staff memo, the only cost is the price of DVDs? They can be purchased for 35 cents apiece or less.

Unfortunately, the council majority failed to give any strong reasons for the policy change.

Councilmember Anne Smith said that prior to the past two years, only regular council meetings had been recorded. No one disputed that. But once the city took a step into the 21st century and started recording meetings, why regress?

Councilmember Julie Fliflet said she believed council workshops, specifically, are intended to be less formal and don’t need to be recorded.

“It provides opportunity for candid discussion,” she said.

Candid discussion is good and necessary and, yes, can be uncomfortable. But when candid discussions are conducted at public meetings, by public officials and affect the public, why shouldn’t they be recorded? It’s in the community’s interest to be open about council conversations. And to be clear, a significant amount of valuable discussion takes place at workshops. In some respects, workshop have come to represent the meetings where meaningful decisions are formed, a prelude to action.

The council majority also argued that the official minutes provide a sufficient record. The problem is that minutes aren’t a complete record — and they can be changed.

A Feb. 3 council meeting provided two illustrations why a recording is valuable, even when minutes are available.

Prior to approval of the Jan. 13 council minutes, Pearson requested that certain remarks made during public comment be added to the minutes and that a letter received by the council be entered into the record.

Smith objected, saying some of the changes she’d requested to minutes last year had been rejected by the council at that time.

“If we’re going to … set a standard, let’s stick with the standard,” Smith said.

Her comments highlight the importance of recording. While minutes may be written or amended inconsistently, a recording provides a verbatim account of what happened.

At the same Feb. 3 meeting, Fliflet also requested a change to the Jan. 13 minutes regarding the council’s discussion of lifting restrictions placed on Smith.

The draft minutes said that “Council Member Bloyer asked if either new council member had spoken to City Attorney or reviewed the documents about the issue. Council Members Fliflet and Lundgren both said they had not. Council Member Fliflet asked for a 5 minute recess.”

Fliflet said that was inaccurate.

“I said I had a long conversation as part of my orientation with the attorney,” she said.

What did Fliflet actually say? The video has a verbatim record that captures not only the words, but the tone of the conversation.

In the video, Fliflet does not appear readily able to say whether she has spoken with the attorney about the specifics of the restrictions, or whether she has read the documents related to it. But she does say that yes, she had a conversation with the attorney during her orientation.

“I’m just trying to think,” she says on the recording, after a pause. “I have spoken with the attorney because I had orientation to talk about things.”

Yes, she acknowledged she spoke with the attorney about “things” during orientation. But did her comments imply she had specifically discussed the matter at hand with the attorney? You can decide.

You can go to lakeelmo.org, click on the Jan. 13 meeting (starting at four hours and four minutes in) and judge for yourself. You can even point to the video and ask her what her comments meant.

That’s the point.

Because there’s video record, residents (and journalists) have access to an unfiltered, verbatim account of what transpired. They can interpret the meaning themselves, without the filter of council-approved minutes.

To be clear, we believe it’s entirely appropriate that councils and other governing bodies have the ability to suggest and vote on changes to the minutes prepared by staff. Nevertheless, minutes aren’t intended to be comprehensive, verbatim accounts.

Such an exact record is useful, however, both for information and accountability, especially in light of recent political tensions.

Lake Elmo has already made the investment in equipment for recording. Why not use it? Why not record council workshops? Why not record every public meeting that takes place in city facilities?

The Gazette urges residents to ask council members to reconsider their policy.

Let’s move forward, not backward.

– The Gazette

  • BillBasham

    Well stated Gazette. Government has to be transparent and accountable. Thank you for this article.