[Blog edited on 1/25/11--thanks to those who helped. I also added references to the statutory requirements in ORS 92.650]
First a few jokes (paraphrased) from Garrison Keillor and this last weekend's Prairie Home Companion:
Why do some men like to marry virgins?
Because they can't stand criticism.
Why do doctors hesitate to prescribe Viagra to lawyers?
Because it just makes them taller.
Why do so many women knit so much?
Because it gives them something to think about when they are talking.
Council Meeting Minutes and the January 18, 2011 Budget Meeting
I must admit that I have great respect for people who can bang out 50 to 100 words per minute at the keyboard because clerical speed with accuracy was, despite training as an Army clerk and radio man, never one of my strong suits. That should be clear to anyone who has run across an early edition of one of my blogs.
Thankfully, we don't really live in a world where the perfectly crafted sentence is always necessary. With the advent of the computer and associated video and audio technology, the type written record of events represented by written minutes should become a relic of the past. Actual events are often recorded in audio and/or video in digital format and can be stored on long-lasting CDs and DVDs, on personal and government computers, on hosting sites, and elsewhere. The actual events, as opposed to the abbreviated, sometimes subjective versions found in minutes, can be easily accessible to anyone with an internet connection, DVD player, or library card. You can check out a tape at the County library, five dollars will buy you an audio or video of a City Council meeting down at City Hall, and the city is having talks with Granicus to provide streaming video and download capabilities for City Council Meetings as I write.
Back in October, prior to Mike Kee's Granicus initiative [The original Idea was proposed by Aletha Bonebrake when Steve Bogart was interim City Manager.], the City Council proclaimed Oregon Archives Month, and I sent them the following letter on the issue:
October 12, 2010
It was good to read the Oregon Archives Month proclamation in today's Council Packet (First three paragraphs are included below), especially in light of earlier discussions of the wholly inadequate public record that is represented in the written minutes. The proclamation makes several important points, and three that speak to why the public record is important state:
1. "the records of the City of Baker City . . . are critical to our understanding of the past and in planning for our common future"
2. "it is a goal of these [archival] institutions to . . . [provide] a forum for ensuring accountability to our citizens"
3. "archival records document and provide context to our histories and evidence of our common and individual rights and obligations."
These goals cannot be achieved by archiving sketchy or incorrect minutes that leave out important events or misrepresent the reality of what actually occurs or what is said in discussions or during citizen participation.
As I noted previously, to have only the written minutes as the archived long-term public record is an invitation to corruption. I think this is true because when partially fictional, and in any event, inaccurate or incomplete accounts are allowed to serve as the official record of events, it suggests to public officials that they will not have to be accountable for many of their statements and actions, and to city administrators that they can rewrite history by omission and misrepresentation.
As you well know, and as was understood by a previous Council who instituted the practice of placing a video tape of Council meetings in our public library, a video tape or DVD of important meetings is a much more accurate record of what actually occurs at Council Meetings.
Part of the problem is the understanding that the law, as interpreted by the Oregon Association of Municipal Recorders City Recorder’s Procedure Manual Title II, Chapter 2.08.090, requires: “The Public Meetings law requires that written minutes be taken at all meetings. Minutes need not be a verbatim transcript and the meeting does not have to be tape recorded – although recording is highly recommended.”
(This interpretation was kindly provided by Becky Fitzpatrick.) This has been used by Council and previous City managers to downplay the need for a more accurate video record to be archived, because, after all, they already do more than the abysmally dysfunctional minimum requirements by making an audio recording and sending a video tape over to the library.
Unfortunately, tape media can wear out, break, or otherwise degrade, and the city is not required to keep tapes for more than a few years. As shown by this years document dump, the city is more than willing to get rid of records if they have been kept for the minimal amount of time that is legally required.
So. . . I would like to suggest that instead of just issuing another empty proclamation for Oregon Archives Month, that the Council use the occasion to also take at least one simple step every year to improve the retention, completeness, and availability of the public record in Baker City. Two simple steps that could be taken this year, would be to make a commitment to saving a video DVD of each public meeting with a requirement to copy it every ten to fifteen years. Another would be to provide a DVD to the library that they could make available to the public as people switch from VCRs to DVD players.
While some will object that changes in technology will make the DVDs obsolete, they can always be transferred to the new technology in that event, and who knows, maybe technology will also by then be able to create transcripts out of video archives.
Both of these improvements would be relatively inexpensive and would advance the goals of Oregon Archives Month.
Thank you for considering these thoughts.
1985 15th Street
Baker City, OR 97814
City of Baker City
Oregon Archives Month
WHEREAS, the records of the City of Baker City, Baker County, the State of Oregon, and the nation are critical to our understanding of the past and in planning for our common future; and
WHEREAS, archival institutions have a responsibility to provide the public with access to their records, and it is a goal of these institutions to increase public awareness of the vital role they play in safeguarding knowledge of our intellectual, cultural, social, and governmental heritage and providing a forum for ensuring accountability to our citizens; and
WHEREAS, archival records document and provide context to our histories and evidence of our common and individual rights and obligations; and. . . .
Only Aletha Bonebrake, one of seven Councilors, responded directly to this letter.
Some may think that saying "to have only the written minutes as the archived long-term public record is an invitation to corruption" is a bit hyperbolic. Here are two examples of why I don't think it is.
1) In the last decade there was a case in a neighboring county where a mayor of the town presided over meetings where the city purchased his mother's property for sewage treatment. The tapes of the meetings showed that the mayor did not declare a conflict of interest. Without the tapes, it could not be proven that he had violated the law.
2) A few years ago, it was alleged that a local mayor had not declared a conflict of interest that he had during the budget meeting when it came up, as he was legally required to do. I asked for the minutes and the tape of the budget meeting. The minutes didn't clearly show what had happened. I was told by then recorder Jennifer Watkins that there was no audio or video tape of the meeting. No evidence--no case.
Some may also argue that having an actual record of the details of proceedings will keep good people from wanting to become public servants. I would argue that it will keep those interested in or susceptible to the behavior of feathering their own nest from serving. In any event, the Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission has been crippled by weak statutes and inadequate funding, and does not have the power or inclination to become an abusive agency. Given their reticence to investigate claims of malfeasance, if a public official ever becomes involved in a full blown investigation by the Commission, there is no doubt in my mind that it is warranted.
There are lots of opinions from various groups as to what should be included in the minutes. There are also legal requirements in the Oregon Revised Statutes.
§ 192.650 Recording or written minutes required
Click on link immediately above to read statute. Here is the first section:
"(1) The governing body of a public body shall provide for the sound, video or digital recording or the taking of written minutes of all its meetings. Neither a full transcript nor a full recording of the meeting is required, except as otherwise provided by law, but the written minutes or recording must give a true reflection of the matters discussed at the meeting and the views of the participants. All minutes or recordings shall be available to the public within a reasonable time after the meeting, and shall include at least the following information:
(a) All members of the governing body present;
(b) All motions, proposals, resolutions, orders, ordinances and measures proposed and their disposition;
(c) The results of all votes and, except for public bodies consisting of more than 25 members unless requested by a member of that body, the vote of each member by name;
(d) The substance of any discussion on any matter; and
(e) Subject to ORS 192.410 to 192.505 relating to public records, a reference to any document discussed at the meeting." [Emphasis Added]
Along these lines, I recently compared an audio CD of the January 18, 2011, City Council Special Meeting on the next year's budget with the city's minutes provided from the meeting in the "Meeting Packet" for tomorrow's January 25, 2011 Council Meeting.
Here is some of what I found:
City Council Budget Meeting minutes, 1/18/11
While you might not realize it from reading the minutes of the January 18, 2011 budget meeting, much of the discussion centered on the general fund with some references to ever-present "huge" street maintenance backlogs and looming expensive public works projects. The likely reason for that is, according to the city's 2010-2011 adopted budget document, is that the general fund is where the vast majority of the tax money goes, and over 71% of it goes to "Personal Services," including wages and benefits for city employees.
Jeanie Dexter pointed me to the definition of personal services on page 26 of the Oregon Local Budget Manual
It is :
"Personal services includes salaries, benefits, workers compensation insurance, Social Security taxes and other costs associated with having employees."
Some may be accustomed to calling this personnel services.
Current and future demands for increased funding though, in addition to contracted personnel costs, are coming from the basic functions of city government, like streets, sewers and sewage treatment, and clean water. This has created increasing tension between the cost of basic services provided by aging or outdated infrastructure, and the always increasing demands on tax dollars for wages and benefits for employees.
Many people are beginning to wonder why wages and benefits for city employees are so much more generous than for other local public and private enterprises and beyond the wildest dreams of many others. Many taxpayers don't see basic fairness in a situation, where during a prolonged economic downturn and stagnation, municipal employee wages and benefits, along with property taxes, continue to increase somewhat dramatically, while their own prospects dwindle.
The problems associated with approving an unprecedented and generous five year contract to employees, while we were entering economic recession and uncertainty, was pointed out by some prior to a vote by a previous Council, under Mayor Jeff Petry, who approved the contract back in 2008. The contract was negotiated by former City Manager Steve Brocato, and it was he who proposed the five year contract. At that time, the Council consisted of Mayor Petry and Councilors Bryan, Schumacher, Duman, Calder, Dorrah and Bass, who voted unanimously to approve the police and fire deals.
Also, read the background in the Baker City Herald:
Security in the face of uncertain future
City's police, fire unions OK 5-year deals
City negotiates 5-year deal with public works union
Taxpayers Feeling "Stepped" On
All this is not to imply that the employees of Baker City do not work hard, I hope and think they do, as does the maid, truck and bus driver, field worker, hospital worker, septic tank cleaner, teacher, janitor, construction worker, State worker, Census worker, fence builder, and cashier, among others.
As pointed out by Councilor Button at the budget meeting, many pensioners have seen little or no increase in their incomes this year. The Social Security recipients in Baker City and elsewhere have had no cost of living increase for two years, even though many of their living costs, including property taxes, increase predictably. So the game I see being played out here, even if you wouldn't get it from the minutes, is that people are realizing that a just solution to a portion of our financial problems, is to bring city employee wage and benefit packages in line with the economic reality of other citizens and taxpayers, and then to find a way to use some or all of that money to pay for our basic infrastructure needs that are of fundamental importance.
I don't know why the minutes don't make the issues more clear, but I do know it doesn't have to be that way. As long as state law allows the minutes with minimal details to be the primary archived public record, an effort needs to be made to ensure that they actually do "document and provide context to our histories and evidence of our common and individual rights and obligations." In the meantime, the city needs to start a long-term (not just a year or two) parallel archive of DVD and CD audio and video records, with a determination and a commitment to save and restore each of them, as needed, for many years to come.
Below, my intent is to compare the minutes of the meeting in a couple of important sections with what was actually said. I will quote, or in most cases paraphrase, what was actually said, just below the quote from the minutes. This should give readers an idea as to how well the minutes reflect the reality of the conversations on those topics during the budget meeting. The sections are numbered according to the order of their occurrence at the meeting, i.e. 1, 2, 3, and etc. I don't have time to more or less transcribe the entire meeting, so the reader can do that for themselves if they like with the minutes and the audio files provided in the links below.
So that readers can verify for themselves what was actually said during the budget meeting, I have posted the files of the segments of the meeting in MP3 audio on the hosting site filedropper.com, and will provide links to those audio files below the discussion of that section of the meeting. You can download the files to your computer by clicking on the links, and then play them in a music player like iTunes.
The minutes are posted on Scribd.
Here are comparisons for two sections:
7. Priorities & Philosophies--Questions & Comments
There was a brief discussion regarding the project sheets proposed by Mr. Kee.
The discussion lasted for two and one half minutes with a back and forth between Councilor Roger Coles and City Manager Mike Kee, with a follow up by Beverly Calder. There is no mention in the minutes that Councilor Coles even spoke.
He wanted to know whether a project in a project sheet meant that it would actually be accomplished. He noted that they listed a lot of projects in the project fund last year and that "nothing's been done."
Mike Kee stated that "the year's not done, so, give us the rest of the year." He also explained further about the purpose of the project sheets. [Mike Kee has only been on the job for a few months, so the responsibility seems to rest on the shoulders of staff and previous interim manager.]
Councilor Coles then gave an example of the bathrooms in the park that are still not fixed and that "they should have been fixed."
Councilor Calder noted that the bathrooms had been inadequate since last July when they faced a crisis situation during Miners Jubilee. Also the windows in the Council chambers were part of the budget for the chamber's remodel, but that "it didn't get done." "So it isn't like it was overlooked, it's just that the money got spent on something else. And so that's been part of the problem . . . we pick a budget item and we have a list of things that need to be done, and only half of it gets done."
After three more short paragraphs on the subject of getting public input to the budget process and the creation of an comprehensive list of grants, our record for posterity, the minutes, stated that:
"The group discussed hiring policies. Ms. Dexter explained that this had been discussed, but until union contracts expire those policies could not be changed. Mr. Daugherty recommended reviewing the policy on insurance and the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS)."
Hard to know specifically what the minutes are referring to. What about the hiring policy was discussed? The following is much of what actually transpired in the four minute discussion (see audio):
Daugherty: "Question for you Jeanie. Last year you seemed . . . fairly receptive about working on a new hire policy when it comes to benefits and things. Has staff made any progress or are they doing anything on that subject?" [Emphasis added]
Dexter: ". . . it's certainly come up in . . . conversation . . . even with some union folks . . . and they are kind of receptive to understanding that times are changing, but . . . other than the administrative people we have union contracts that are yet to expire. . . . Mike . . . is very interested in putting that on the table as soon as these contracts come up. . . ."
[Note: These contracts don't expire for over two years, on June 30, 2013. Former City Manager Brocato, as the county was entering the Great Recession, gave unionized employees a generous, unprecedented, 5 year contract, and the Council at that time approved it. Other cities have tried to force reopenings and adjustments, but our Council has only done so once--to alter the contract in the public works department as requested by the supervisor of Public Works. More on that questionable episode later, I hope. The Police Department offered to give up one year of their COLA last year, but the Council felt they couldn't accept the offer because they had not been able to reach a similar agreement with the Fire Department. ]
Daugherty: But still, uh, you know. . .
Calder: A policy is a policy.
Daugherty: Time's a wasting. Even if you hire a new clerk. . . . I just think it's something. . . . What do you got? Thirteen unrepresented or so. . . somewhere in that range. . . .
Kee: I have tried to research where that policy comes from and I can't find that policy.
Daugherty: The city doesn't have one?
Kee: Not that I have found.
Daugherty: "Then let's create one. Start paying your 6% PERS, raise the health insurance contributions." [Calder establishes they are in the third year of the Union contracts] You know, something's got to give there. We're a community that doesn't grow, we have no prosperity, and you can't keep balancing it on rate increases for all of our services. [Increases in water and sewer rates, etc.]
Dexter: "I'm not disagreeing with you at all." [ A few years back, Jeanie Dexter did politely listen to me in a conversation about the increasing divide between what city employees get in wages and benefits and what the general public in Baker City can afford to pay.]
Kee: That will be a better discussion to have when we get into the budget though.
Daugherty: "I think staff needs to start looking at, you know, it's been 8 months, needs to start looking at and putting it on a piece of paper. . ." [short discussion staff vacation time] "It seems to me like somebody in administration and passing piece of paper and say you know. . . how much are we going to start requiring employees to pay for health insurance. . . . OTEC's 20%, Forest Service is a third, . . ."
Mike Kee noted that admin staff does help pay and Dougherty stated that it is 10%.
Daugherty: "Can't afford it Mike." . . . I know they pay ten, but that's too low. . . . It's a start. But 15 would start building Jeanie's funds up a little more.
Next, the minutes refer to Councilor Button's comments:
Mr. Button indicated that he would like to see some options dealing with water, wastewater and streets with the funds the City has.
Here are some additional pieces of that discussion.
Button: Asked about the possibility, if I heard him correctly (you can check the audio file provided), of allowing, if there were a sunset provision in place, funds to be transferred from the general fund to help pay for water/wastewater issues, and streets.
He also said:
I'd like to see a game plan in place to actually address the backlogs on street repair and construction. . . ."
Mike Kee responded with "We need some help with that one Councilor Button."
Button: I know, It's huge! So. . . at least to have that discussion. What can we actually accomplish with the money we've got and how we are doing it. . . One thing to take into consideration would be an option in which we didn't do a 3% increase in the property tax . . . that's kind of been an automatic given that we've been raising it 3% a year. I know for a lot of people out there . . . they got zero increase on their pensions and stuff. . . so we [inaudible might look at that? ]
In a brief discussion regarding property taxes, Ms. Bonebrake explained that that tax rate could not be increased.
This discussion resulted in Bob Seymour expaining that the only way the city could decrease the property tax revenues coming to the city would be to levy less (3%) than the "full permanent rate." ( The city's permanent rate is listed as $6.3314 per $1,000 in the 2010-2011 budget document.). He also noted that some very pricy homes are being discounted or are in foreclosure, and that the assessor will have to reduce the value of these because they are going to sell for less than what they are presently assessed at. So you're going to lose some of the 3% there.
For the rest of the conversation, listen to the audio file.
3. Q&A Dorrah, Daugherty, Aletha, etc.
Seymour explained that since the City Finance Director now prepares the financial statements, the audit was completed later than it had been when his firm prepared the statements. He added that there was a financial savings to the City when Ms. Dexter prepares them in-house.
Minutes do not state the questions--here they are paraphrased:
Dorah: Question about why this point in the audit has moved from around November to now. (Why the audit process reports to Council and Budget committee are being delayed)
Answer by Bob Seymour, accountant from our auditing firm of Guyer and Associates;
It is a matter of timing. A couple of things have changed. Jeanie is now preparing the financial statements herself (as opposed to the auditors). . . . . I don't even have a copy of the file. . . . It's a matter of when Jeanie gets the financial statements done--I don't mean to blame it all on her. . . That's what it sounds like that's what I'm doing, but that's really true--because what we've done is schedule the audit later to start in to relation to when she will be prepared for it. Now, Mr. Brocato had her doing a lot of projects that in his planning . . . stuff. . . that he used to do. . . that he actually pushed it back because of the additional workload put on Jeanie. . . .
Dorah: And "Are we saving money by doing it that way'"and " Is there a disadvantage to" . . . having the audit . . . "two or three months later?"
Bob S.: Yes and no. Jeanie does a lot of this on her weekends. (See audio)
Jeanie Dexter: This year is actually earlier than last.
Daugherty: Question about significant liability for payout at termination without dollars set aside in reserve for that.
Ans. from Bob S.: There is a liability of $212,000 payable from general fund and street fund. As of June 30, 2010 the general fund had $1,187.000 and $499,000+ in the street fund and when asked, Mr Seymour said he is is comfortable with that.
Not everyone is going to retire at once. Everyone would have to quit at once for it to be a major problem.
Clarke: "How large would that have to get before you weren't comfortable Bob?"
Answer from Bob S.: If it gets substantially larger . . . then you'd have a policy problem. . . ." It is something that you owe them that you haven't paid them for yet." . . . .
Dexter: No accrual over 240 for represented but different for police & fire. . . . For police and general administration you can take it out of cash or just take mandatory vacation time, but we are or are not (--unintelligible) enforcing that.
Bob S.: Baker City used to take it out of a payroll service fund but just about the only city that had it like that. Most are on as Baker City has it now--on a pay as you go basis.
Daugherty: "it [the way they are doing it now?] shores up the bottom line" (as opposed to having it in reserve in a separate fund like a payroll service fund line item) so it shores up the ending fund balance. (I think he is saying it gives a false impression of what the real ending fund balance is.)
Aletha: Why shouldn't it be funded in a (separate line item) holding fund?
Seymour: If you think about it you are paying a person for 52 weeks a year and you give him two weeks vacation, what you're doing is you are giving him a full year's salary but you are only expecting him to work 50 weeks, so you are expecting him to take two weeks off, so when you budget his salary for 52 weeks, you are actually funding that vacation time in your budget.
Aletha: The problem is that it becomes tax carryover because. . . we still have a liability. Should go into a saving fund for the actual liability, otherwise people could misunderstand the actual ending fund balance as being money that could be used for general operations. Seems a lot safer to me.
Bob S.: Yes, you could do that and that is extremely conservative.
Aletha: Because it is so close to the wire that without it, it would be very dangerous, and I don't know whether it would be dangerous for a municipality of this kind or not, but it seems that money that is actually committed. . . should be sitting there [in a separate fund].
Bob S.: Doesn't the labor district also have something on termination besides (unintelligible) . . . .
Aletha: No, its really the big picture--the liability. . . . . It started about four years ago [Brocato--Chris]. and really, it just seems to me that it is a false number, to see a cash carryover that includes a liability [so it is a disingenuous cash carryover], because then you make decisions as to what you can fund, put more money into streets, and more money here and there, . . . it seems a very good idea to have it identified.
Bob S. . . . . The question I come back with is … there's no effect on the budget . Really, if you are going to reasonably fund this, you should look at what the expected turnover rate is, and then set aside the amount of money you expect to pay out. . . [several known terminations--and which we do] for the next year, and then set aside for the expected terminations. . . . We're getting into my personal opinion here. . . . But I guess the question is do the citizens of this city like to see their money sitting around in a savings account because it belongs to someone for vacation time that they are not taking that will be funded by just paying them the same salary without them working as much, or would they rather see you provide those services that are needed? . . . . See audio file--more explanation needed.
Aletha: I really understand what you are saying, I'm not going to belabor this, . . . sometimes an entity ends up with employees who stay the whole 30 years and have like six weeks vacation, take four, . . . and you end up with a 15 to $20,000 liability. . . . it could be dangerous in a small entity. . . . It could be dangerous in a small entity.
Jeanie D.: Usually when you have an unexpected termination, you usually have a vacancy for a period of time . . . and that's where you have the savings where you compensate for for the payout. And a lot of times, in those places where you have normal turnover they don't build up real big reserves in their vacation time, usually you end up with a net savings in a vacancy that's been there versus on the payout at termination.
Aletha; And I'm sure you watch it carefully enough that if you saw it building up like a tidal wave you'd see it right away. . . .
Jeanie: Last year there were three planned retirements in the water/utility fund and one in the police department--we just budget those.. . . and in one case the employee used most of their vacation time so they didn't have costs at termination.
For rest of audio files on the budget meeting, see links below. Again my point,and question, is, do the minutes accurately reflect the discussion so as to "document and provide context to our histories and evidence of our common and individual rights and obligations?"
1. Intro by Mayor Dorrah
2. Bob Seymour Overview of Budget Process, Purpose & etc.
4. Jeanie Dexter on Budget Calendar and etc.
5. CM Mike Kee on additional revenue sources; Daugherty comment, etc.
6. Priorities & Philosophies Introduction
Mike Kee's comments. See Audio file.
Mr. Kee spoke about introducing "project sheets" to help Council with spending priorities, etc.
He also stated they he and staff want to help you (Council) achieve what you want to achieve, we're not here to fight, we will push back--you want that, I think, don't you?--you don't just want a staff that doesn't bring things to your attention. So we will occasionally push back but staff's main job is to help you accomplish what you want to and bring the committee to gather to somewhat of a common aim.
8. Preparation for 2011·2012 Budget Meetings
Oregon Local Budget Manual (109 pages)