At the onset of its meeting Thursday, the Board of County Commissioners made an announcement out of the blue that it will no longer be keeping written minutes from its open meetings, effective immediately, and that video recordings would now serve as the official record. This announcement came without warning — it was not listed as a line item on the agenda, there was no public comment on the matter and it was decided without a vote.
It also seemingly came without any thought given to certain members of their constituencies, particularly those in rural areas with limited internet access, those who may be hard of hearing, or, for that matter, those who may just want a quick synopsis of a past meeting without wading through hours of video.
Legally, the commissioners are within their rights to do this. As explained by County Attorney Tim Burke, the Annotated Code of Maryland was amended by legislation in 2011 to state that “A public body need not prepare written minutes of an open session if: (i) live or archived video or audio streaming of the open session is available.” But other than the fact that they can, the commissioners offered no specific benefit to county taxpayers for making the change.
In a news release sent after the meeting, it states, “the commissioners believe the best record of proceedings is the actual recording of what took place, rather than a synopsis as provided by traditional minutes.” While we don’t disagree that the actual video recording is preferable, meeting minutes can make county business more accessible for some.
Carroll County government has, to its credit, offered live streaming and archived video of their meetings for years. The meetings are also broadcast on public access television live and replayed, and in addition to the county’s online meeting portal, can also be found on its YouTube and Facebook pages.
In making the announcement Thursday, Board President Steve Wantz said, “We’re in the 21st century now.” It was an interesting choice of words for Wantz, who represents arguably the most rural of the five commissioner districts, where access to some of the technology necessary to view video of the commissioners meetings is still stuck in the 20th century.
District 1 stretches across the northernmost portion of Carroll County, including places like Keymar, Silver Run, Lineboro and Millers where high-speed internet is far from commonplace. Heck, many people in those areas don’t even have access to cable television, and have to rely on a satellite dish. That means they also cannot view meetings on cable access channels. For individuals with a slow internet connection, viewing meeting minutes will take far less bandwidth than watching a video.
There is also a matter of individuals who may be deaf or hard of hearing. Videos of commissioners meetings are not closed captioned, meaning for the hearing impaired, written meeting minutes would be the best, and perhaps only way to keep up with officially county government proceedings.
And just from a practical standpoint, a concerned citizen might be interested in a particular discussion that happened at a previous meeting, but doesn’t remember exactly when it happened. Searching through meeting minutes would allow them to narrow down when that discussion occurred, which they could then seek out on video. Otherwise, that citizen would have to slog through hours of meeting video to find what they are looking for, the proverbial “needle in a haystack.”
In reviewing the websites of nearby counties, it appears Carroll is the first to make such a move to eliminate meeting minutes. Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Frederick, Harford, Howard and Montgomery counties all still post meeting minutes in addition to live and archived video of county council meetings. So do commissioner governments in the Western Maryland counties of Washington, Allegany and Garrett.
The commissioners need to take a step back and revisit this decision immediately. Just because they have the ability to eliminate meeting minutes does not make it good, open and transparent government and, instead, they have alienated a portion of their constituency.