Two weeks after deciding that records from its meetings should be verbatim — or word-for-word of everything said — the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners has reversed that stance in favor of less detail.
“We’re not a court of law,” the board’s Shirley Brinkley said during the latest meeting Thursday night, when she successfully lobbied for a less-formal approach to the minutes, or official records, kept for such sessions.
The commissioners subsequently voted to scale down the totally verbatim mandate they had approved during a Feb. 2 meeting, with only statements made during public forums and public hearings to now be maintained in that manner.
But the story really begins on Jan. 19, when dozens of citizens ventured to a podium during a public forum that night to voice their opinions regarding comments Mayor David Rowe had made for a Washington Post article published in early January. Among statements by him considered racist was one in which the mayor expressed his distaste for low-hanging pants sometimes worn by young African-American males.
Rowe apologized soon after the article ran, but that did not deter speakers from calling for his resignation during the Jan. 19 public forum, while others said they accepted the mayor’s apology and the comments did not reflect his true character.
The forum lasted about two hours, which were condensed to about two and a half typewritten pages in the minutes presented to the commissioners to approve at their next meeting on Feb. 2.
However, Commissioner Steve Yokeley refuse to participate in what’s usually a routine vote, arguing that the minutes as presented did not portray everything said at the forum, although what was included was accurate. He asked that Nicki Brame, the city clerk who transcribes the records from an audio tape, prepare a more-detailed version.
Then after more discussion, the board voted 5-0 to have minutes of everything that occurs during meetings recorded verbatim.
Matter of practicality
However, the two weeks that lapsed since that decision prompted some rethinking among the commissioners, especially Brinkley. Although the minutes issue was not on the agenda for Thursday night’s meeting, Brinkley spoke up, after the mayor asked if there was any old business to consider, that she wanted to revisit the earlier vote.
Brinkley argued that transcribing tapes to provide verbatim sets of minutes was a time-consuming task, hinting that the mandate could require a new employee at City Hall to accommodate.
She questioned the need for this approach from a practical standpoint.
“All of our meetings are already taped, and anyone can hear them (the tapes) in a reasonable amount of time,” said Brinkley, who also defended the completeness exhibited by Brame over the years.
“She doesn’t miss very much,” the commissioner added. “If she misses anything, it’s rare.”
Commissioner Dean Brown agreed.
“I’ve done some research and most cities our size do just what we do,” Brown said of Mount Airy’s tradition of not keeping verbatim minutes.
City Attorney Hugh Campbell has said local governing bodies are not required to maintain such detailed records, just ones that allow someone who didn’t attend a meeting to understand what happened.
“At special times we may need a verbatim set of minutes,” Brown said Thursday night, which prompted a stern reaction from Cawley concerning what “important” occasions merit such complete records.
“Who decides when it’s important?” Cawley said, explaining that he wanted to avoid a scenario of “this week it’s important so we’ll do verbatim minutes, then (we) don’t if it is not important to the right people.”
Although the Jan. 19 public forum that produced comments about the mayor was a noteworthy event, he said other people who show up and speak on lesser topics believe their issues are important, too.
Cawley cited the example of a man who has spoken at the last two meetings stemming from his problems trying to install a mobile home in the ETJ (extra-territorial jurisdiction zone) surrounding the city limits.
At one point Thursday night, City Manager Barbara Jones was asked about using a voice-to-text computer program to transcribe the minutes from tapes, but she said that method has proven to be inefficient and requires correcting errors.
“I don’t know how useful that would be,” Jones said.
After further discussion, the board decided that every public forum and public hearing from now on will be recorded verbatim in the minutes, but other portions of meetings will not.
The vote also incorporated a suggestion by Commissioner Jim Armbrister that the meeting audio tapes be kept permanently, instead of erased after a certain time, so they can be available to citizens on request.
It was mentioned that the tapes also would provide an extra dimension compared to the written words, such as listeners being able to hear the emotion in someone’s voice.
Armbrister pointed out that the commissioners hold only 24 regular meetings a year, and the expense of maintaining audio recordings of those is much cheaper than a new employee.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.