Less Is More: Action Minutes Save Time, Serve the Agency Best
This article describes the benefits of action minutes. It was first published on the MRSC blog. MRSC is a private nonprofit organization, formerly known as “Municipal Resources and Service Center,” serving local governments in Washington State. The insights described here apply to local governments across the nation.
If your council, commission, or committee takes detailed minutes of your meetings, consider switching to action minutes. Action minutes record what is done at a meeting and not what is said.
What constitutes meeting minutes? The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) at RCW 42.30.035(1) provides:
The minutes of all regular and special meetings except executive sessions of such boards, commissions, agencies or authorities shall be promptly recorded and such records shall be open to public inspection.
State laws applicable to specific local governments also require agencies keep minutes for meetings of their legislative bodies, but the laws do not go into detail. See, for example, RCW 35A.39.010 (applicable to code cities) which provides, in relevant part:
Every code city shall keep a journal of minutes of its legislative meetings with orders, resolutions and ordinances passed, and records of the proceedings of any city department, division or commission performing quasi-judicial functions as required by ordinances of the city and general laws of the state and shall keep such records open to the public…
Similar provisions can be found in the laws applicable to other local governments, including towns (RCW 35.27.220, requiring clerk to keep an account of all council proceedings), counties, port districts, and water-sewer districts (RCW 36.32.140, RCW 53.12.245, RCW 57.12.010, all of which require commission proceedings be recorded and kept in a book).
Aside from these provisions, there is very little statutory guidance on minutes. Over the years MRSC consultants have fielded many questions about meeting minutes, such as:
- What are the requirements for minutes? Must these include a verbatim transcript of the proceedings?
- Do names and residences of public comment participants go in minutes?
- Must meeting minutes include verbatim public comments or a summary thereof?
The Challenge of Verbatim Recordings
While it may be natural for elected officials and representatives appointed to public bodies to desire a full record of what was said at meetings, the time and effort required to prepare such detailed minutes far exceed the value to the organization and the public. (Quasi-judicial hearings, of course, are another case entirely. Since decisions made at quasi-judicial hearings may be appealed, a verbatim transcript of the hearing is required.)
When a body wants its remarks “on the record,” the agency’s clerk or secretary has to spend hours transcribing those remarks, reviewing them, editing them, and preparing them for publication. Those are costly hours that could be better spent on other duties.
Once the minutes are prepared, the members of the governing body have to invest time and energy in reviewing the draft minutes. Corrections or changes often have to be made, requiring yet more work. Sometimes there are differences of opinion about whether the content was correctly noted or not. Sometimes people are offended by the way their remarks are written down. All corrections have to be voted on formally by the body. The result can be a big drawdown of time and emotional energy for a modest return.
Finally, detailed minutes make it a challenge to locate key items and decisions within the pages and pages of text. The document is far less functional when it includes remarks as well as actions.
The argument is sometimes made that detailed minutes are important for legislative history. A group with this goal in mind should include recitals and findings about its intentions within the body of the adopted legislation. Legislation speaks for itself.
The Solution? Action Minutes
MRSC and Jurassic Parliament consistently recommend that local government councils, commissions, and committees use action minutes. Robert’s Rules of Order offers a simple guideline for what should be included in meeting minutes: minutes should record what is done, not what is said.
Action minutes record key information about the meeting and describe any action that was taken. They may also include a note that discussion was held — with a brief description of the discussion — if the governing body wants to make it clear that they did their due diligence on a given issue.
Here is a list of items that could be included in action minutes:
- Name of governing body and meeting location
- Times at which the meeting started and ended
- Which members of the governing body were present, which were absent (and if a quorum of the body was present — suggested, but not required)
- Which members of the agency staff were present
- Text of all main motions taken up by the body and their disposition (i.e., which motions passed, failed, were referred to committee, etc.)
- If amendments were made, the final version of the motion as amended
- Any points of order or appeals and their resolution
If, during the regular meeting, the governing body goes into executive session, the meeting minutes should record the time the executive session starts, the time it ends, and the purpose for going into executive session — see RCW 42.30.110 (2). Note that minutes are not required to be taken at an executive session, and if kept, could be subject to disclosure under the Public Records Act (PRA).
Robert’s Rules of Order recommends that a brief summary of oral reports be included in the minutes, but Jurassic Parliament recommends a more efficient way of doing this: Have the presenter provide a written summary of the report to the clerk or secretary. These summaries can then be separately attached to the final version of the minutes.
Some Washington local governments already use action minutes, and those that record their public meetings on audio or videotape find that posting the action minutes along with the recorded video allows the public to easily hear and see exactly how the discussion went. Further, RCW 42.30.220 encourages agencies to record or stream and post recordings of their meetings online. If your agency elects to take this approach, entering tracking notations or time stamps into your written minutes will help readers easily locate the relevant moment in the recording. Some systems do this automatically.
As for the question of how to address public comment in the minutes, RCW 42.30.035 only requires that the governing body have meeting minutes but does not specify what the minutes should include. Additionally, while the OPMA requires that your agency provide the opportunity for public comment at regular meetings at which final action is taken (RCW 42.30.240), it also does not address whether such comments should be included in meeting minutes. However, since meeting minutes are subject to disclosure under the PRA, if your agency chooses to include public comment in the minutes, we recommend a summary of the comment period that avoids providing personally identifiable information on individual commenters.
What goes into the meeting minutes for your governing body is largely a matter of local policy set by the body, but we suggest that action minutes help a governing body stay focused on its future goals and result in savings in time and energy for the governing body as well as the agency as a whole.
Whatever your council, commission, or committee ultimately chooses to include in your meeting minutes, we recommend formally adopting a policy or procedure documenting this practice. MRSC’s Council/Commission Meeting webpage includes sample rules of procedure for meeting minutes from cities and counties across the state.
This article was originally published on the MRSC blog. Visit www.mrsc.org for a wealth of valuable information and resources on local government.