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Openness of meetings debated by Hubbard County Board

At Tuesday's work session, the Hubbard County Board discussed whether or not to record its meetings and how much of its minutes should be published in the legal newspaper. Hubbard County Attorney Jonathan Frieden was present to offer legal counse...

At Tuesday's work session, the Hubbard County Board discussed whether or not to record its meetings and how much of its minutes should be published in the legal newspaper.

Hubbard County Attorney Jonathan Frieden was present to offer legal counsel.

The county board meeting room is equipped with audio and video recording capabilities. Hubbard County planning commission/board of adjustment meetings are currently recorded.

Audio/video recording

County Coordinator Eric Nerness shared a 2015 position paper from the Minnesota County Intergovernmental Trust (MCIT).

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Minnesota Open Meeting Law requires public entity boards to record all closed meetings, except those closed under attorney-client privilege.

"There is no corresponding legal requirement that governmental bodies record board meeting that are open to the public," writes MCIT. "The minutes of a board meeting are the official record of the public entity's actions and satisfy legal record-keeping requirements. However, as the public's interest in government operations grow, questions regarding the merits of audio or video recording board meetings often arise. The decision to record open meetings is a policy decision to be made by the public entity's governing board."

"MCIT, I think, has taken the position, it's fair to say, that county board meetings should only be recorded when it's required by statute. There's a couple reasons for that," Nerness said. "First reason is, if we record the session, that recording becomes an artifact. That artifact becomes public data; we then need to store it. We need to retain it. There can be some significant additional (Minnesota Government) Data Practices costs associated with that."

For example, Nerness continued, if a person is hearing impaired and says they want the meeting transcribed, the county would need to pay for transcription services.

By state law, government entities must maintain and preserve audio or video recordings as official government record. They only may be destroyed according "to the timelines found in the entity's approved records retention schedule."

Translating to other languages is another possibility.

"As we continue to become an increasingly diverse population with other peoples coming in that may or not speak English, we would be required to produce that information in the language that they request," Nerness said, noting that Spanish-speaking residents do visit the county government center.

Frieden said he was not aware of a requirement to translate recordings due to a language barrier, but the Americans with Disabilities Act does require all governments to make reasonable modifications for people with disabilities.

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Frieden agreed with MCIT's recommendation from a legal standpoint. "It's a policy decision. It's up to the board. Either the way, there's pluses and minuses on both sides," he said.

"As board members, what you're generally doing is making a record of why you're making decisions. If that's recorded, that can be a positive thing if there were to be potential litigation or questions whether the board followed appropriate procedures or had a sufficient record or factual basis to make the decisions, to support the decisions so they're not arbitrary or capricious," Frieden said. "That's a big plus. That can also be addressed by the minutes."

The negative is the cost of retaining the records, he said. County board meetings are generally three to five hours. "That's a lot of data to store over time, and you've got to store per the retention policy, which is forever."

"Yes, it's indefinite," Nerness agreed.

Frieden said, "My legal position is the county is in a better legal position to not record it and focus on the minutes themselves being the only record of the meeting."

County commissioner Tom Krueger said, "I brought this up because I had several people say they can't come to our meeting during the daytime and this would provide a means for them to go back and see what was happening."

Krueger mentioned that two counties - Stearns and Crow Wing - are audio recording their meetings, "and that's very quickly available to everybody who wants to look at it."

"It is the biggest benefit, by far," Frieden agreed.

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Krueger, who served on the Hubbard County Planning Commission/Board of Adjustment for 18 years, recalled that the audio recording was successfully used in the county's defense in a court case.

County commissioner Char Christenson said, "The biggest disadvantage I see, we're currently bogged down with data requests." To go through paper and audio archives, the cost will be "astronomical."

"Already, we have departments that can't do their day-to-day stuff because they're fulfilling data requests," she said. "We have to figure out if the positive outweighs the negative."

The county would still need to keep the paper record, so it would be "doubling your effort" to permanently keep audio recordings as well, said county commissioner David De La Hunt.

"We just don't have a retention schedule, is my understanding, so because we don't have a policy in place, it defaults to the state schedule," Frieden said. "That's something the board should look at it."

Christenson said with the coordinator, attorney and MCIT "strongly suggesting" not to record the meetings, "I would suggest we take that into account."

Board minutes or summary?

Next, the board discussed what to publish in the legal newspaper. The Enterprise was named the county's official newspaper at the Jan. 8 meeting.

Nerness said he talked to outside legal counsel. "The legal requirement for the minutes of the meeting is to record the vote of each commissioner. That's it. That's all statute requires," he reported.

Currently, Hubbard County Board minutes are more detailed than that, Nerness said, and have been published in the legal newspaper. They are "the formal record of board action" and include "relevant discussion" about why a decision was made, he continued.

"As you look around websites of other counties in the state and legal newspapers in other counties, some counties choose to publish the board summary rather than the full board minutes," Nerness said. "So it's a question that came up."

One option, he proposed, is publishing the board summary in the newspaper and posting the complete minutes on the county's website.

"What's the right thing to do? What's the board's desire to keep the public informed?" he asked.

Frieden said, "I would not advise changing how the board minutes are done." He did not have advice on where to place the minutes. "I don't think there's a right or wrong answer to that."

De La Hunt inquired whether the county would save money on publication costs.

County Commissioner Dan Stacey said "to make sure everyone has an opportunity to take part in our local government, put them on our website."

In fact, the county board minutes are already placed on the county's website: www.co.hubbard.mn.us/government/board_of_commissioners/board_meeting_doc... .

Christenson suggested the elderly read the actual paper while the rest go on the website. She recommended publishing the board summary in the newspaper and seeing if there's any public feedback.

"Obviously, the main concern, I think, from the board is to try to get it out to everybody in as broad a fashion as possible," Frieden said.

As this was a work session and not a regular meeting, no action was taken on either matter.

Shannon Geisen is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
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