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Transparency: Government minutes missing in action

We hear governments boasting all the time about their transparency websites and there is no question that the material that’s posted on the Internet is generally leagues better than in the past.

But we have a gripe. There is one transparency topic that appears to be in deep decline – the recording of meeting minutes for work that  takes place in legislative committee meetings, advisory panels, commissions and task forces.

Meeting minutes are a great source of information for journalists, advocacy groups, government officials and interested citizens. Yet they are staggeringly uninformative; the governmental equivalent of empty calories.

Take a look at the agenda and draft minutes from a California Actuarial Advisory Panel meeting on March 10, 2017

Agenda item: Current Legislation

Minutes report of the agenda item. “The panel discussed current legislation.”

Agenda item : Recent Public Plan Comments by the Press or Others

Minutes report: “The panel discussed recent public plan comments by the press or others.”

Agenda item – Emerging Practice for Actuarial Assumptions

Minutes report – “The panel discussed actuarial assumptions”

If you learned anything truly useful from this, you’re a whole lot smarter than we are.

The one silver lining in this example, is that at least the California Board created a semblance of meeting minutes.

In many cases, minutes are posted months late or never posted at all.  We feel cheated by websites that promise to provide minutes, but don’t. Take the Legislative Reference Library in Texas. At the top of the web page there’s a tab for committees. Once you click onto the committee page, you’ll see that the clickable words “Committee minutes & related documents” is posted on the left.  Click through and you’ll see, as we did, that the most recent “Committee minutes & related documents” are from the 75th session of the legislature — two decades ago, in 1997.

Then there’s the Delaware General Assembly.  At the top of the page on the legislative website, there’s a tab for the Senate. Click there and you see a menu that promises to provide “Meeting Minutes”.  For the 2017 session, there is only one set of minutes for a labor committee hearing that took place in February. But there were many more committee meetings than that. We counted up 48. We checked out the individual committee pages and didn’t find minutes there either.  (For the parallel House page, there are “no records found.”)

In Delaware, as in many other states, there is no actual rule that meeting minutes must be maintained. But we still think it’s an important practice. Audio or video recordings don’t provide the same kind of summary information, as they occur in real time.

Shouldn’t open meetings held by government bodies provide good written notes of what went on? Isn’t that a cornerstone of true transparency?

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