The Franklin aldermen on Monday night (Feb. 2) unanimously voted to formalize a process for releasing the minutes from previously closed-door meetings.
The town attorney, John Henning Jr., has always had the authority to make closed meeting minutes public once it is determined that releasing them wouldn’t do harm. In fact, state law requires the minutes from closed meetings to be released once the reason for being private has passed — such as discussion of lawsuit strategy once that lawsuit has been settled, or negotiations over property after the purchase goes through.
In reality, however, few public boards in this region do this as a matter of course.
Alderman Bob Scott, who brought up the matter, wanted the board to adopt a formal policy for releasing closed meeting minutes, but he compromised with a process that leaves it up to the discretion of the town attorney if the minutes should be made public.
Scott preferred a system, however, where closed meeting minutes would become open after board members agreed in consultation with the town attorney.
Mayor Joe Collins disagreed, saying that would put more responsibility on the board members to determine when minutes should be made public when the town has always counted on the attorney to address that.
Collins said he thinks the attorney being in control makes for a smoother process.
However, under the Monday vote any board member or member of the public may ask the town attorney to review a particular set of minutes to determine if they should be unsealed.
Henning said the new process is not much different than the way it has been done before.
Collins agreed: “I don’t see it breaking any new ground, just formalizing (the process).”
If anything, the vote on Monday was an expression of the board’s intent of how to deal with closed session minutes, Henning said.
Henning said he periodically went through closed session minutes about once every three to four months to determine if they should be opened.
The town owes it to the public to open up the minutes of closed sessions once it is no longer necessary to keep the minutes secret, Scott said.
State laws says that, “The public body may seal the minutes of a closed session if public inspection of those minutes would frustrate the purpose of the closed session,” Scott said.
Scott called for a formal policy as an advocate of open records in general, but he also wants a particular set of closed meeting minutes made public.
He said the minutes of a legal dispute that was discussed in closed session remain sealed, despite the fact that the case was settled for $5,000.
Scott said no one has refused to release the minutes, but there was no formal policy for releasing them.
“We exist to conduct the public’s business,” Scott said. “I just felt like we should have a policy.”
The dispute involved the town and a former resident, David Whitmire, now of Alaska, who allegedly took slate and doors from town property.
In the case, Mayor Collins said he authorized Whitmire to take a small amount of slate from town property as a memento because Whitmire grew up at the site now owned by the town. Collins asked former Town Administrator Mike Decker if it would be OK for Whitmire to take a couple of pieces of slate, and Decker said it would be all right.
However, Whitmire took a lot more than a couple of pieces, carting off slate valued at $19,000.
Scott and Alderman Verlin Curtis said the mayor and Decker acted beyond their authority when allowing Whitmire to take property. Curtis and Scott said that the mayor and Decker should have asked the rest of the town board if it was OK for Whitmire to take something from the property. Collins said he didn’t think it was necessary to get permission from the board to allow Whitmire to take a few pieces of slate.
Scott had called for an independent investigation into what actually transpired when the mayor and Decker authorized Whitmire to take slate. But the investigation never went forward because the case was settled by Whitmire paying the town $5,000.
Scott said he wanted to know who said what in the transaction. Asked if he thinks the mayor actually gave Whitmire permission to take more than a few pieces of slate, Scott has said, “It would be nothing but pure conjecture.”