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Are Bethel CT Residents’ ‘Public Comments’ at Bethel Meetings Recorded Accurately? Or at All? Are Agenda Notifications Posted Properly?

Report by Paula Antolini, July 26, 2019, 3:30PM EDT

Bethel meeting in 2017. (File photo ©2017 Bethel Advocate)

How many Bethel residents check the recorded meeting minutes after they make a public comment at a local meeting, to see if their comment is accurately recorded in town records? Probably not many.

Regarding Bethel board, commission or committee meetings, there seems to be some ongoing concern from residents about how information is recorded and presented to the public.

Do most residents even know where to check the meeting minutes on the Bethel town website or in the CJH Municipal Center? If you were unable to attend a local meeting, did you know that you can read the meeting minutes to see what transpired? (View how to find meeting minutes and agendas at the bottom of this article.) They are also on file in the CJH Municipal Center.

Regarding public comments at meetings, people feel that if recording secretaries are going to submit a summary of a meeting into record, of what the residents said in public comments, it should accurately reflect the meaning of the words. By ignoring more important details of comments for instance, it changes the overall meaning. Several residents have stated this at a few different Bethel board, committee and commission meetings for many years and recently too.

This interpretation and recording of public comments continues to be a problem and means that Bethel residents are not being properly informed in the best method possible to insure they receive, and have access to, important information in a timely manner. (View Charter Revision Committee of June 10, 2019 here.) Residents at the June 10, 2019 Charter Revision Committee meeting voiced their opinions on this topic at the beginning of the video in “public comments” shortly after the meeting begins.

In his public comment at the June 10, 2019 Charter Revision Committee meeting, Bethel resident, and founder of the Bethel Action Committee, Billy Michael, talked about the importance of access to recorded (paper and otherwise) meeting minutes for residents in the future, as he himself frequently looks back through the records to find information that relates to present day issues, he said. “There’s more public input available to people from the past than there is in this [meeting minutes],” he said, “I like seeing what people said in 1989, 1995, it’s a terrific study in democracy.”

Charter Revision Commission member Nicholas Hoffman said in a reply to Michael, “And the beauty of it at this point, and this is the first one [meeting] we’ve videoed, so the conversation you and I are having right now, when we’re dust, in ether floating around space, people are going to hear exactly what I said.” Someone out of range of the camera then said, “So this is obsolete.” And Hoffman replied, “So is handwriting. And that’s how it was done in the past. We evolve. It’s part of our species.”

Michael said, “In the public record of the future my input will only be ‘among other comments’ like I’m against the 5-member Board of Selectmen.” He said, “I want to be on record as saying a citizen spoke out against the 5-member Board of Selectmen, 4-year terms, and dissolution of Town meeting form of government and retention of advisory questions.”

Michael also stated that some of his comments were not listed in the recorded copy of the meeting minutes for some meetings. “I think it hurts the future,” he said, regarding residents’ ability to obtain accurate meeting information.

Board of Finance member, Bethel resident Cynthia McCorkindale referred to meeting minutes concerning the past Aquarion water issue and said, “To Billy’s point, we had this conversation back with Aquarion and it was a big, big thing, because we felt, some of us who attended, we said that the meeting minutes did not reflect the tenor of the meeting.” McCorkindale spoke about Robert’s Rules of Order, pertaining to recording secretaries only having to record the names and addresses of people making public comments and motions at meetings and whether or not motions passed, etc. and said, “My point is, all or nothing. Because it’s better to have nothing than to have something that misrepresents.”

Recording secretary Dionne Craig said, at the June 10th Charter Revision committee meeting, “If it’s a regular meeting, really the minutes don’t have to say anything more than your name and your address. I don’t have to add anything to that.” … “If it’s a public hearing, and there’s public input, then that’s the place where more detail would be given,” Craig said. This does not address omitted comments changing the entire meaning of a statement, when recording public comments in a Town form of government, which is what we have in Bethel.

There was also request made by a resident, in public input at the June 10, 2019 Charter Revision Commission “in the spirit of transparency” to increase the minimum time required from 24 hours to 48 hours to publish and post agendas to notify residents so they have sufficient time to plan attend meetings and prepare their comments.

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VIDEO RECORDINGS

For only SOME meetings, held in Room A of the CJH Municipal Center, you can view video recordings later too, usually in the same week. Presently the Planning & Zoning Commission meetings, for instance, are not recorded on video, only on audio recording. Most other meetings are not video recorded. Residents have to struggle to obtain information.

Have you ever listened to an audio-only recording, which is presently what is used for most meetings by law? It is difficult to determine who is speaking sometimes, especially when most board, commission or committee members do identify themselves by name before speaking.

Even when attending a meeting, board, commission or committee members who have not identify themselves before a meeting begins, remain nameless. So unless you know who the board, commission or committee members are ahead of time, or have memorized the sound of their voice when listening to an audio recording, comprehension to decipher who said what can be challenging. You also have to physically travel to the Bethel municipal center to obtain the audio recording to be able to listen to it, if they can find it.

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This brings us to the present method by which the town is legally required to inform the public about meetings and agendas and notices ahead of time:

AGENDAS AND POSTING LOCATIONS AND SCHEDULES REGARDING MEETINGS

Recently there was an issue with a Board of Selectmen July 16, 2019 meeting agenda that was not posted (meaning for residents to view) in the required-by-law 24-hours ahead of time of when the Board of Selectmen (BOS) meeting would occur. This was also concerning an agenda topic that was quite controversial, the “religious displays on public property” topic. Residents were anxious to know if that topic would in fact be included on the next Board of Selectman meeting, which was to be held on July 16, 2019.

The BOS agenda paperwork was stamped as received by the town clerk by 3:47PM July 15, 2019, but was never posted to the public. By the morning of July 16th still no BOS agenda notice had been posted in the municipal on the bulletin board or online. Town Clerk Lisa Bergh was out of the office that week and an office person named Josh told us that the agenda paperwork goes to the “IT department” after the clerk’s office but he was not sure what happens after that.

First Selectman Matthew Knickerbocker recently said it is up to each board, commission or committee on how and when they post information.

We asked secretary Dionne Craig what had happened between July 15 and 16th, when the BOS agenda notice was due to be posted 24 hours ahead of meeting time but was not (because she sent the agenda to the town clerk’s office originally). Craig was not very forthcoming with information when we were simply asking about the process by which paperwork is handled.

Craig did say, once again, in part, “I don’t have to post an agenda until 24 hours before a Board of Selectman meeting.” … “It doesn’t have to be posted online by 3:47 it has to be posted, which means that it has to be posted here within the building and put on the [bulletin] board and then it goes online,” she said.

Craig said she wanted to transfer the phone call to the town clerk’s office and they could tell us when it was posted online. We asked, “So it’s the town clerk’s responsibility to post it online?” Craig said, “I’m not saying it’s anyone’s fault, there was nothing done wrong.”“It went up on the board and then we put it online. Nothing was done wrong.”

Craig became increasingly agitated and said, “It’s always put on the bulletin board.”“What does it matter? So you can quote me as trying to blame somebody? I am not going to participate in this.” … “You are out of line, you are just trying to stir a pot. I am not going to participate.” Craig abruptly ended the phone call at 11:11 a.m. on Tuesday, July 16, 2019.

The legal requirement was not met in this case. The notice was still not on the bulletin board by the morning of July 16, 2019 and onward. Doors to the municipal building are also locked at night so how can residents see notices, especially residents who do not use computers to obtain information?

Photos of the glass-covered bulletin board in the municipal building on the morning of July 16, 2019, sent to us by a resident, show no agenda notice for the July 16, 2019 meeting. (View one of our photos below.) As we eventually learned, the religious display discussion included in the BOS meeting was moved to August 6, 2019 and an official agenda is still forthcoming as of this writing, July 28, 2019.

CJH Municipal Center bulletin board in hallway of first floor, where notices are posted.

So far, things remain as-is regarding recording public comments and agendas notifications. You need to view notices on a bulletin board in the lobby of the municipal unless a board, commission or committee member decides to digitally post it online or elsewhere. Also public sentiment is still that meeting minutes of recorded public comments are not always an accurate reflection of what residents have stated.

People need to be informed properly and accurately. It would be advantageous to residents if you voiced your opinion about this topic at every local meeting and play a part in changing this system to better meet the needs of residents.

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HOW TO FIND MEETING MINUTES AND AGENDAS IN BETHEL CT

Here is how to find meeting minutes in Bethel: Go to the town website here https://www.bethel-ct.gov/ and scroll to the bottom and click on “Minutes and Agendas” which will bring you here https://www.bethel-ct.gov/content/1190/83/default.aspx then choose a year and what board, commission or committee meeting you wish to view. This will bring you to a page, for instance if wanting to view the year “2019” and “Bethel Board of Selectman” meetings, it would look like this https://www.bethel-ct.gov/content/1190/83/default.aspx. Then just scroll down to the bottom of the page for the most recent agendas or meeting minutes you want to view. Meeting agendas are on the same list and also are supposed to be posted on the CJH Municipal Center lobby bulletin board on the first floor.

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Editor note: Bethel obviously needs more video cameras in ALL meeting rooms where meetings are not recorded now other than via audio. Can Bethel obtain video cameras for recording meetings? A simple camera on a tripod that costs a few hundred dollars will suffice, and is easy to download and upload video files too. Surely in a town that has a budget in the millions, Bethel can afford a few more cameras to inform the public properly.

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