Charleston Council Pushes for Timely Minutes

March 22, 2010

Investigative Reports

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The Nerve

The agenda for last week’s Charleston City Council meeting was light – so light that one wondered whether it was worthwhile to attend.

It was.

The inflection points of change can often only be determined with the passage of time and this meeting may have been one of those turning points in the history of the Mayor Joe Riley, and in particular, his control of council.

There was nothing on the agenda that signaled the confrontation that the mayor would have with the council. Indeed, the congratulations offered to Riley by council member Dean Riegel and endorsed by others, on Riley’s award from President Obama suggested an amicable meeting to follow.

But that soon changed when council member William Dudley Gregorie complained on the tardiness of the city in providing minutes of past meetings. One way or other, nearly all the council members signaled support for Gregorie.

Gregorie noted that the minutes of the last three city council meetings were not yet available and said it limited his effectiveness as a council member serving his constituents. He needed to refer to past minutes, in particular those of the immediate previous meeting, to guide follow-up questions.

He and other council members noted that other municipalities were able to provide timely minutes.

Clerk of Council Turner Maybank told council that the city differed from other municipalities in that minutes were “verbatim.” Everything that was said was recorded in the minutes while the minutes of other municipalities were simple summaries.

To transcribe all discussion took a lot of time and it was because of this, there were delays. The mayor supported the clerk and added that the city did not have the resources to put on extra staff to provide more timely minutes.

The mayor also spoke of the large expense of installing voice recognition technology so that comments could be immediately transcribed to text.

Members united in demand for timeliness

This did not sit well with council members and there followed a long and often heated debate as to what measures could be undertaken. Council members wanted “verbatim” minutes, and quickly.

“Fix it,” Gregorie said.

It was pointed out that a voice recognition program could be bought for $150 and installed in a portable computer. Similar to “simultaneous translation” used in the United Nations, for example, a member of staff could attend council meetings and repeat the comments of the mayor and council members as spoken.These would immediately be transcribed into text in the computer. The text would probably need to be edited and this could be done by listening to the tape recording of the meeting. The cost would be minimal.

Maybe it is not so simple, but for council members to wait as long as two months is unreasonable. Council member James Lewis Jr. noted that he had been calling for more timely minutes for years.

Marc Knapp is a contractor specializing in heavy underground utilities and the owner of Charleston Site Utilities.