Transparency continues to be a topic of conversation at Philomath City Council meetings with the most recent discussion involving the posting and availability of audio recordings.
The issue with recordings came up June 10 when then-Councilor Terry Weiss complained that audio from a May 13 meeting was not available on the city’s website, which she said kept her from reviewing comments she had made on a particular topic.
City Recorder Ruth Post disputed Weiss’s claims during a June 24 meeting and said the recording has been there all along.
“Those minutes were on the website, they were on the audio page, they were never taken down. They have been there the entire time and they are still there,” Post said.
During the most recent meeting, councilor Marion Dark took up the issue of audio availability and transparency commentary that keeps coming up during meetings.
“I think one of the reasons that we have some concerns about all of these kinds of things is that there have been transparency issues, whether they’re real or whether they’re not real is not for me to judge, but I do feel that we should do everything that we can to make sure everything we do is as transparent as possible so that we can get over this ideation of lack of transparency,” Dark said.
In that vein, Dark made a motion that all city meetings be recorded, including at the committee level, and that they be made available online for three months.
“There seems to be this misconception out there that somehow the city council isn’t being transparent,” City Manager Chris Workman said during the discussion that followed. “I’d argue that we’ve been transparent all along the way. City Recorder Ruth Post does an excellent job with the minutes. I don’t know that in the five years that I’ve been here that I’ve ever had as many issues with the minutes as I’ve had in the last six months.”
Workman went on say that nothing has changed with the staff’s approach.
“Once the minutes are approved, the audio is removed and the minutes are placed on the website and are there for review,” Workman said. “That’s the process that we’ve followed consistently for years and it works. I think it gives full disclosure and full transparency to the public.”
Although recordings may not be available on the website after removal, they do remain available under public records law. The city states on its website that recordings from the past 12 months are available upon request. Post said she has received “very few” public records requests for audio recordings.
Post said that the city follows the state’s retention schedule and keeps audio recordings for a year after the minutes for that meeting are approved.
“In fact, we adhere to it very liberally in terms of I don’t dispose of audio recordings until a complete year has passed for the prior year,” she added.
Dark and councilor Chas Jones both made comments that it would be helpful to have that immediate online access to meeting audio to review the specifics of discussions not reflected in the minutes, including committee meetings that they did not attend.
Post said budget committee and planning commission meetings are currently recorded.
“The planning commission audio recordings are placed on the website currently until the approval of the hard minutes and then they are taken down for space considerations,” Post said.
Post explained that other various committee meetings have traditionally not been recorded.
“Those more often than not are held in a small meeting format around a table and historically, the primary use of that recording was either preparation of the minutes or when I’m sitting in a closed formation meeting,” Post said. “I can get those minutes pretty accurately and there is no need to go back and reference an audio recording.”
Dark believes they should be recorded and shared with the public.
“I think it would be a good idea still to have those audio minutes because those are committees where decisions are made and those recommendations are made to the city council,” Dark said. “I think those are pretty important meetings actually because the city council does pay attention to those recommendations.”
During the public comments portion of the June 24 meeting, citizen Jeff Lamb urged the council to make recorded meetings available online “so the city can demonstrate to all of your constituents that the printed minutes are, in fact, a good reflection of the audio.”
Workman shared concerns, including the cost of purchasing more online storage capacity.
“There is an actual cost that goes with that and the primary concern on having them up on the website for an extended period is those are large audio files, especially if the meeting goes an hour or two,” he said. “If you’re holding multiple hour or two-hour meetings every week, that can get to be pretty substantial as far as space. … The cost that I would be concerned about would be the cost of that storage — that’s a real cost.”
As such, Workman cautioned the council from making any decisions that night until actual costs could be calculated.
Dark suggested that if cost is an issue, then it should be reviewed during the upcoming finance/administration meeting.
Workman also shared concerns over audio becoming a replacement of sorts for the minutes, which represent a meeting’s official record.
“The concern would be if we start relying on the audio as the source for the information, it’s kinda going to be this paralysis by analysis and there will be so much information to go through in the expectation that you’re going to go back and listen for the entire audio for every meeting as opposed to going to the written minutes that have been reviewed and approved by the committee,” Workman said. “I just think that we’re creating a lot of work, especially on the staff side.”
Dark’s original motion still required a vote following nearly 30 minutes of discussion and it failed 3-2 (Dark, Jones yes; Doug Edmonds, David Low and Matthew Thomas no; Eric Niemann absent; one seat vacant).
The council then directed Workman to look at the issue and develop a cost analysis and proposal for the July 9 finance/administration meeting.
Also at the June 24 meeting, the city council adopted an $18.6 million budget for the 2019-20 fiscal year on a 4-1 vote (Dark nay, Niemann absent). The budget includes total appropriations of $13.6 million plus another $5 million in unappropriated and reserve amounts.
The council also approved a tax rate of $5.3005 per $1,000 of assessed value.
As part of the motion, the council also approved a resolution to declare that the city elects to receive state-revenue sharing funds.
Before the final vote, councilors had questions over revenue-related issues, specifically $30,000 that was proposed to be spent on a city employee salary and benefits survey as well as the formula used to determine water rate increases.
Joan Swanson, finance director, said the resolutions that they were voting on did not impact the revenue side of the budget. Those topics will reportedly be discussed further at the July 9 finance/administration committee meeting.
In other news from the meeting:
• In response to a councilor’s question, Workman provided an update on the Millpond Crossing development. “At this point, they submitted their engineered drawings for the road and the water and the sewer and the storm (drainage) that’s going to go down along 15th Street. Those are under review by the city engineer and once those are approved, they will have a preconstruction meeting and then they’ll be able to start looking at submitting building permits,” Workman said in reference to the project’s Phase 1.
• The council directed staff to move forward with advertising and taking applications for the vacant city council seat.
• The council approved a consent agenda, which included minutes from the May 13 and June 10 meetings.
• In addition to Lamb’s views on audio, other topics during public comments included a wish list of qualities for the next councilor, a request for support of HR 763 (“Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act”) and promotion of the upcoming Philomath Frolic & Rodeo.
• Jones shared comments in reference to water rights and certain strategies that the city could take in the future.
• Post mentioned changes to the city’s website that now allows the public to email all councilors with a single click instead of needing to visit each councilor’s profile and communicating with them through separate emails.
• The council met for a brief Urban Renewal Agency meeting and approved a $4.05 million budget, appropriations and declared tax increments on a 5-0 vote.