Minutes must be timely, Rep. says
February 12, 2008
A bill being debated by the Legislature highlights the problems that arise when elected officials in Utah do not release their meeting minutes in a timely fashion.
"Some entities are delaying the production of their minutes so issues will essentially fade away and die," said state Rep. Mel Brown, a Republican who represents Park City on Capitol Hill. "If they talk about them in a meeting and they don’t produce the minutes for three or four months, some of those issues that were in the previous meeting are forgotten."
House Bill 166, sponsored by Brown, would require minutes of open meetings be "available to the public within 14 days after the date of the meeting or at the next scheduled meeting, whichever is later."
Citizens in Summit County complained that minutes from meetings weren’t available soon enough, Brown said.
"When people have meetings, they ought to have minutes and they ought to have them available, at the very least, at their next meeting," he said.
But 14 days isn’t soon enough, said Jeff Hunt, an attorney who represents several Utah media outlets.
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"Should you really have to wait for two weeks to see the minutes of a meeting?" Hunt asked in a telephone interview Tuesday. "That just seems like an unreasonable amount of time to wait."
Many journalists supported HB 166 until Brown amended the legislation to make minutes off limits to the public until they are officially approved, said Joel Campbell, a lobbyist for the Utah Press Association.
"Somehow there is this belief that city council members ought to have editorial control over the public minutes, and to me it’s just a record of a public meeting," Campbell said. "I just have a hard time grasping the idea of why minutes of a public meeting should not be a public record."
HB 166 classifies unofficial minutes as a "protected draft," which prevents journalists and the public from obtaining the documents, Hunt explained.
"I’ve heard complaints, primarily from weekly newspaper reporters, who have said that sometimes the public bodies they cover won’t allow them access until the minutes have been approved at the next meeting, and sometimes the next meeting is a month away," Hunt said. "Just because something hasn’t been officially approved by a public body doesn’t mean it’s a draft, and the public ought to have access to them,"
The Utah Government Records Access and Management Act, commonly referred to as GRAMA, regulates how records are released to the public.
"I don’t believe that under GRAMA, once the minutes have been taken down, that those are a draft just because they haven’t been approved," Hunt said.
Campbell complained that HB 166 would provide politicians with a legal excuse to withhold minutes until they are approved.
"It gives them a positive reason not to give out the record, whereas before, if they felt like they could give it out, they would give it out," he said. "For the most part, most cities in our state ought to be able to put together minutes in a few days and they ought to be public record."
Reporters sometimes cannot attend the meetings of all the boards they cover.
"They go to look at the minutes a day or two after the meeting occurred and the minutes haven’t been approved yet," Hunt said.
Still, newspaper employees have called him to support the legislation, Brown said.
"I think we’re all trying to get the same thing done, it’s just a matter of communication," Brown said.
Batches of minutes are approved sometimes by the Summit County Commission well after 14 days.
"Sometimes they let them stack up for three or four meetings," Brown said about some elected officials. "We’re concerned about this issue, and when it came up a couple, three times, I thought, well, we better do something about it."
The bill applies to political bodies that GRAMA regulates, including city councils, county commissions and school districts, Brown said.