In the past year, the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors has held 23 regular meetings. As of July 1, only four of those meetings have had meeting minutes approved and posted on the county’s website.
Minutes are the public record of what is discussed and decided at board meetings. When Charlottesville Tomorrow started its review of the availability of these public records, there were no minutes available online for any regular meeting held between April 13, 2016 and June 1, 2017.
During the past month, approved minutes from eight meetings have been posted, including those from four meetings held in the last year, after July 1, 2016.
“We had a much larger gap than we would normally experience, just because of the transition period that we were going through,” said county clerk Claudette Borgersen, who was hired in August 2016.
In the past year, Albemarle County filled the county attorney and county clerk positions, both of which play significant roles in the approval and finalization of minutes.
“Our office has been making a concerted effort to get caught up on minutes,” Borgersen said. “Because [finalization] is such a lengthy process, it takes a long time for [them] to become part of the official record of the county.”
The process for producing and finalizing minutes begins with an outside contractor, who transcribes meetings and sends the transcriptions back to the county after about a month and a half, according to Borgersen.
The transcription goes through two rounds of quality control, first read by the county attorney and then the clerk’s office. Next, minutes are given to one of the six elected members of the Board of Supervisors who review the minutes a final time.
Review of minutes is evenly divided among the board members so that minutes do not need to be inspected by the entire board.
“When [minutes] are being read by Board of Supervisors members, some members might be able to get to their particular minutes faster than others,” said Lee Catlin, Assistant County Executive for Community Relations.
“A board member might say, ‘I’m not done yet, I need a little time,’” Catlin added.
In this case, the approval would be pushed to the next meeting. For instance, the approval of minutes from the May 4, 2016 meeting was on the agenda for approval in six consecutive meetings.
As a result, minutes may be posted out of chronological order. For example, while minutes from January 4, 2017 are posted, minutes from July 6, 2016 have not been posted.
In the final steps, the board votes to approve minutes during a regular meeting, the clerk’s office prints and binds the minutes, the chair signs the minutes and the clerk uploads them to the county’s website. Without the final signature on the printed copy, the clerk says minutes are not considered official records and cannot be posted online.
Draft minutes from the Board of Supervisors meetings can be accessed at the clerk’s office. They must be read with the understanding that they are not final and are subject to change, Catlin said.
“I wouldn’t say there’s one particular point in the process where [minutes] get held up,” Borgersen said.
Catlin agrees that delays in the process can happen at any step, and the cumulative effect of the many steps is what creates delays.
“Generally speaking, we really try to keep [minutes] moving through the system as quickly as we can,” Catlin said.
“Sometimes we delay our own process,” said Diantha McKeel, the board’s chairwoman. “Sometimes we just have so much reading that it takes us longer to get the minutes read than maybe you would expect or that you would hope.”
The lengthy turn-around process for minutes is partially due to the fact that the board records near-verbatim minutes.
“Some of our minutes can be very lengthy, over 100 pages of minutes,” Borgersen said.
Minutes for a six-hour meeting take about 27 hours to be proofed before they are given to a board member for review, according to an executive summary created for the board when they discussed whether to keep producing near-verbatim minutes in 2008.
“We’re always looking at that process to see what we can do to move them along faster,” Catlin said. “We are constantly focused on trying to improve that.”
There has been debate about switching to summary or action minutes, which are less detailed and time-intensive versions of minutes to produce. But after the discussion in 2008, the board agreed to continue producing near-verbatim records.
“About two years ago, we brought an additional half-time position to the clerk’s office with the intention that they would be really dedicated to working on the minutes,” Catlin said.
“Transparency is really important to us,” Catlin added. “It’s been very important to our board that in addition to the video and audio recording, there’s also this written, almost verbatim, transcript of what has gone on.”
Jeff Werner, of the Piedmont Environmental Council, said that one positive aspect of near-verbatim minutes is that they allow decisions and discussions to be viewed years after they occurred.
“It’s really interesting to go back and look at decisions that transpired, not a decade ago, but decades ago,” Werner said. “Being a historian, I feel somewhat obligated to let [people in] the future know what we were thinking today.”
Others who access the minutes appreciate the near-verbatim style and feel it is helpful in understanding board decisions.
“Albemarle’s minutes are quite good when compared to other localities. They take great pains to capture as much as possible,” said Neil Williamson, president of the Free Enterprise Forum, an organization committed to discussing local government issues.
“I appreciate what they have now,” Williamson said. “Summary minutes I think would lose some of the back and forth of the conversation.”
While Williamson favors more details in the records, he acknowledges the challenges of making them available quickly to the public.
“It’s of some import that they get [minutes] right. It’s also of some import that they get them up in a timely way, and that’s where Albemarle falls behind in many respects,” Williamson said.
The county also makes board meetings public by live-streaming and then posting a video record of the meeting within two days. County staff creates shortcuts within the videos to enable viewers to jump to parts of the video they are interested in.
“We have several steps so if the public wants to access information about a meeting, they have other opportunities to do that,” Borgersen said of the video option.
Action memos should also be posted after about a week, Borgersen said.
As of July 1, there were two missing action memos online from regular meetings held in the last 12 months, both from December 2016.
Werner said he thinks the video and audio records are helpful in that they are quickly accessible, but still believes that the minutes themselves are important to have available.
“What’s nice about having the minutes is you can search,” said Werner. “I was trying to catch up on when have I spoken to the board. So I searched for ‘Jeff.’”
Charlottesville and the eight counties surrounding Albemarle all use summary minutes.
Charlottesville’s City Council has posted minutes from all their meetings prior to June.
Five counties around Albemarle — Orange, Louisa, Fluvanna, Buckingham and Nelson — have posted all of their minutes from the last year up until June.
Greene County is missing minutes from their February 14 meeting but has posted minutes from all other meetings up to June. Rockingham has not posted minutes from their May 10 meeting, but posted all minutes from meetings prior to May.
Augusta County is missing meeting minutes after October 2016.
While there are certain requirements for meeting minutes, such as recording the date and location of minutes, there are no laws that dictate a timeline for approving and posting minutes online for local government bodies.
However, a new state law took effect July 1 establishing a more rigorous guideline for how state bodies publish their minutes.
Sponsored by Del. Jim Lemunyon, R-Fairfax, the law says that all state boards and commission must post draft minutes of meetings no later than 10 working days after the meeting and final approved meeting minutes must be posted within three working days of their final approval.
While this law was created to address the issue of delayed government minutes at the state level, it does not affect the Board of Supervisors, as a local government.
“We understand that the minutes are really critical for our community to be able to follow and track our meetings,” McKeel said.
At their last meeting on July 5, the Board of Supervisors had five sets of regular meeting minutes on the agenda for approval. Board members asked to hold two sets of minutes to be approved at a later date. The other three sets of minutes were approved, but have yet to be posted online.