At the Planning, Licenses and Development committee’s spirited second discussion last week of a proposal to keep public minutes of the biweekly meetings of City Council committee chairs, the mayor and city staff, Keene City Councilor Mitchell Greenwald couldn’t have put it more cogently when he told his fellow committee members “we could be talk about this until tomorrow morning.”
The proposal being debated was put forth by Councilor Randy Filiault, whose similar request a year ago never gained traction. He is concerned that the regularly scheduled biweekly meetings lack transparency, to both the public and councilors not in attendance. The meetings began on former Mayor Kendall Lane’s watch to enable the mayor and committee chairs to set the agendas for the next council and committee meetings and to ensure appropriate city staff members and materials are available at those meetings.
To Filiault, the rub is that discussion at the biweekly planning meetings might drift beyond mere agenda-planning and that the committee chairs will have advance — and perhaps additional — access to information not then available to their fellow councilors. To address this, his March 5 proposal to the council called for minutes of the biweekly meeting to be taken and made public. At the PLD committee meetings since — on March 10 and 24 — he has also stated he would find satisfactory making a recording of the meeting.
At the committee discussions of Filiault’s proposal, PLD Chair Kate Bosley asserted biweekly committee chairs’ meetings are purely administrative and make for more efficient committee and council meetings, a view echoed by Mayor George Hansel and City Clerk Patty Little, who said that no substantive information was shared at the planning meetings. They both also expressed concern that, because the group holding the biweekly meetings is not a public body, the city would be going beyond the state’s Right-to-Know law and possibly create an expectation that minutes be taken of other administrative discussions.
And Hansel noted that the advance planning meetings ease demands on the mayor, the city manager and the city clerk, who would otherwise have to hold a separate conversation with each council committee chair to finalize agendas for upcoming council and committee meetings.
Filiault agreed that the meetings are typically non-substantive and that other incidental off-the-record conversations between individual councilors and staff can and do happen. But, he says, because the biweekly meeting is regularly scheduled and might result in some councilors being in the know before other councilors and the public, some mechanism — minutes, a summary or a tape recording — must be implemented, insisting that his only interest is in transparency.
City Manager Elizabeth Dragon also described the biweekly meetings as administrative and told the PLD committee that, since taking office as mayor, Hansel has been “very careful” to stick to agenda-related discussions. Yet, possibly proving Filiault’s point, she also acknowledged that, before Hansel’s time as mayor, sometimes the biweekly meeting discussions might “veer off” onto other topics.
After lengthy discussions of Filiault’s proposal at two PLD meetings that did not approach any resolution, the committee members threw up their collective hands and took Greenwald’s suggestion they end debate and simply refer the matter to the full council for discussion. If the committee debate on the matter is any indication, the council discussion should be animated.
At that discussion, a couple of points seem worthy of consideration. First, there’s no reason the council can’t go beyond the Right-to-Know law and voluntarily keep and make available minutes, a summary or other record of the biweekly meetings. More transparency is always better than less when public officials conduct the public’s business, and it’s even more so if it will also keep councilors equally informed.
Also, Hansel is firm in his insistence that the biweekly meetings don’t stray from administrative agenda-setting, but Filiault, in his March 5 letter, alluded to unspecified “recent events” that he feels call for a record of the biweekly meetings. The debate on his proposal would be better informed if he explained what those “recent events” are. Even in the absence of an explanation, though, making available a summary or recording of each biweekly meeting would certainly settle whether the meeting went beyond being purely administrative.
Another consideration would be for there to be a formal definition — by mayoral proclamation, council resolution, rule or some other mechanism — of the biweekly meetings’ purpose that also spells out the limitations of what may ordinarily be discussed at them, with a requirement that a report to the other councilors and the public of any additional matters that might have come up. That would reinforce the mayor’s and others’ insistence that the meetings are indeed always non-substantive while also providing transparency about them.