Evart City Council disputes with clerk over meeting minutes
EVART — Within local municipalities, meetings are recorded into minutes by clerks and approved by board members generally without a second thought. In the city of Evart, however, the minutes are causing controversy.
Members of the Evart City Council and city attorney Jim White are facing off against Evart City Clerk Seraphim Bieri over the style and content of meeting minutes.
At the Feb. 2 meeting before minutes from the Jan. 5 and Jan. 19 meetings were to be approved by the council, members discussed their concern with Bieri's "descriptive embellishments" in her official record as opposed to the standard "Cliffs Notes" version. Council members including BJ Foster, Gregg Sherman and Mayor Eric Schmidt spoke their minds on the matter.
The three said they believe Bieri's use of such "descriptive embellishments" is inappropriate, as words describing emotions have been used when recording public comments and discussion between council members before a vote is taken. Sherman was concerned about the accuracy of the minutes if descriptive language was used, and questioned if Bieri was only recording certain aspects of the meetings she wanted to while leaving others out.
Bieri disputed council members' arguments against her, stating her "professional mastery of accuracy" without bias comes into play while performing her clerk duty of recording meetings. Larger words for description should not be an issue, she said, and she believes the nature of meeting minutes is to capture the meeting's highlights. Addressing important specifics in each meeting is not crossing the line, Bieri added, and two attorneys she consulted (which she did not name) regarding the situation told her she was within the legal margin of the state's rules.
She also quoted a section of the Open Meetings Act Handbook, which states, "The OMA does not prohibit a public body from preparing a more detailed set of minutes of its public meetings if it chooses to do so."
White joined the conversation, stating he never has seen minutes like Bieri's, which he sent to other attorneys who were appalled after reviewing them. Beiri, he said, should not use adjectives in her minutes because adjectives are opinions and not facts, and she cannot make a case to say her minutes are entirely accurate without reviewing the tape recording.
"This raises legal issues that can put the city in jeopardy," White added.
Once discussion ended, council members approved only a section of the minutes from the Jan. 5 meeting, and made no motion to approve the Jan. 19 meeting minutes.
Following the meeting, Bieri expressed her belief that the way she records and submits minutes is important because it maintains the city's integrity and accountability intact. In addition, she believes the community would be unaware about what really happens at a meeting unless she expanded past the basic "Cliffs Notes" standard.
"I am flummoxed that they are taking this approach," she said. "As an elected official, I am held accountable to the people and I believe the details are part of the public record. I believe my version protects the council."
Schmidt is hopeful for a change that will please all involved.
"It's difficult to remember all the specifics of conversations that happen during the meeting without reviewing the audio recording," said Schmidt. "I believe it's best to document motions made, and by whom, keeping the minutes to the point. I trust we will find a happy medium that pleases both our clerk and council."