By Michael Howell
The County Commissioners are considering establishing a policy governing the video and audio recording of commission meetings and decided to stop live streaming meetings or even videotaping or making audio recordings until they get a policy crafted that meets state requirements.
The commission has installed new technology that allows live streaming of meetings over the internet called Web-X. But a question arose about how to handle public comment that comes in over the live stream and how that might be incorporated into the decision making process. There was some concern that public testimony might somehow be excluded in the process.
The county attorney’s office suggested that it could place the county in liability if they invited public input through the Web-X system but then did not use it in the decision making process.
Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher said that it was not a technical problem but one of practicality.
“I understand the technology involved,” he said. “It’s not a technical question, it’s a practical one.” He said it was about how to run the meetings to ensure that all comments were incorporated into the process.
Commissioner Greg Chilcott said that in his opinion the written minutes of the meeting should be the only “official record” of the commission’s actions. He asked if the commission had to keep audio and video recordings once the written minutes were adopted as the official record.
Clerk and Recorder Regina Plettenberg said that the county has to follow the rules for record keeping that are set by the state committee on public records. She said that right now all recordings made by the commission, whether written, audio or video, are considered permanent records and must be stored indefinitely. She said that at least one state committee member has suggested that the County could submit a request to the state committee to allow destruction of video and audio recordings 30 days after the written minutes are officially adopted.
County Administrative Assistant Glenda Wiles said that many members of the public ask to see or listen to recordings of the meetings to come to some understanding of how the commissioners arrived at their decision.
“We get asked a lot about how the commissioners arrived at their decision because the written minutes don’t provide that,” said Wiles.
Kanenwisher said that as far as staff being asked how the commission arrived at a decision, “I would advise staff not to get into it.”
The commission came to a consensus to send a letter to the state committee on record keeping stating that it would like to make the written minutes the only official record of Ravalli County Commission meetings and that the state allow destruction of recordings, whether audio or video, after thirty days following approval of the minutes. In the meantime, to avoid storage problems, no live streaming or recording of meetings would take place.
The commissioners also raised the question of whether in the future, if recording resumes, all public meetings should be recorded or just official public hearings. No decision was made in that regard.
The commissioners also recently adopted a new policy concerning procedures for answering requests for information from the public as well as a new policy for conducting public meetings.
The new policy requires that all information and documentation must be requested in writing and a response will be delivered within 10 working days.
“Requests for information must be specific and clearly stated. Members of the public may submit public comment to the commissioner’s office at any time, requests for information are not the appropriate forum for comment. Any request which requires staff or commissioners to discern the requester’s objective will be returned for clarification. Requests which clearly identify documents or information will be processed as quickly as possible. When identifying information or processes being requested, the information must be a singularly definable concept and not a derivative in any way. For example: Requesting ‘all documentation related to the county’s road policy’ is singular and easily defined (if quite broad). However, a request such as, ‘commissioner Johnson said option A was better than option B, please provide documentation to substantiate this’ is not a sufficient description of the requested information and will be returned to the requester for clarification,” states the draft policy.
A sample request form asks the inquirer to pick from among four designations the one that most aptly describes them:
“1) a private citizen seeking information
2) a member of the media seeking information as part of news gathering
3) affiliated with an educational, scientific, or public information organization
4) affiliated with a private corporation for which I am gathering the information.”
The new public meeting policy sets the order in which the meeting is conducted. It allows for a sponsoring commissioner, chair or staff member to introduce a topic of discussion among the commissioners “which should define any proposed actions or options for actions.” Staff reports and written comments are then read, followed by a period of public comment. Following public comment the chair entertains a motion and allows commission discussion and then a vote.
The policy also spells out rules for public conduct. Citizens are allowed only one comment on each item. Citizens may ask a question of the Board but at no time may the Chair allow a debate or follow-up question.
“Rarely and infrequently,” it states, “a member of the board may be allowed, at the discretion of the chair, a direct response to a public comment.”
Citizens must address the board as a whole and not any individual board members.
“A statement such as, ‘Commissioner Johnson stated that….’ is a reference or quoted statement and is permitted. A statement such as, ‘Commissioner Johnson, I want to know….’ will be ruled out of order,” the policy states.
All people must face the board and make their comments only to the board. The board may ask questions of staff or a resource person during board discussion, but not during public comment.
A time limit will be set on public comment. “This time is virtually always two or three minutes,” it states in the policy. The Chair is not authorized to allow more than 10 or 15 seconds over the time limit.
At a meeting last Monday the commissioners discussed a set of policies proposed by Commissioner Matt Kanenwisher stating the powers of individual board members and establishing the powers and authority invested in the Chair.
The policy recommendations generally allow any individual commissioner to attend any group, conference, meeting, or seminar which may offer the board more insight or information. Any individual board member would also be allowed to gather information from, interview with, or observe, county employees in the execution of their assigned job description. Only prior notification of the department head is required. An individual board member may also request information about the day-to-day activities of any department or employee. Any individual board member is also allowed to express opinions or concerns about the performance of a department as a whole or any individual function of a department
No individual board member may direct a department action, however, or that of any individual employee without the consent of the board in advance. The Chair has no special powers other than conducting the meeting and serving as the “supervisor” relative to the grievance process for non-supervised, executive offices, that is the commissioner’s office, the finance office, and the Human Resource department.
Permission may be given by the board for an individual member to sign or execute documents authorizing actions previously approved by the board, receive communications from an outside agency or department and act as liaison, to attend groups, boards, conferences or associations as a representative of the county, and to attend groups, boards, conferences, and associations as a voting member of such an organization.
Commissioners Suzy Foss and Ron Stoltz complained about the way meetings were being conducted with too much interruption and not enough order. Commission Chair J.R. Iman took the complaints under advisement, saying things could be done better.