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Princeton Council: Watch the Video If You Want Details of What Happened at Public Meetings

Meeting minutesThe Princeton Council decided Monday night to forgo more comprehensive meeting minutes in favor of “action oriented” minutes that record the outcome of council votes.

Under the work session item titled “increased transparency and streamlined minutes”, Princeton Mayor Liz Lempert suggested that moving forward, the Council minutes should record votes, but “be less of a transcript of what each person said. It will be easier to keep them up to date.”

The town will post links to TV 30’s online video archive of council meetings on the municipal website. People who want to review what happened in detail can watch the videos, as they could in the past, officials said.

“It will be the best of both worlds,” Lempert said.

The last minutes approved by the council are from April. Officials said the clerk’s office has been too busy to complete them because of consolidation.

New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act requires public bodies to keep “reasonably comprehensible” minutes of their meetings and to make them available to the public for inspection and copying.

In all of the other municipalities in Mercer County, with the exception of Trenton, comprehensive minutes are compiled that include summaries of main points made by officials and others during meetings, regardless of whether a vote was taken. The City of Trenton is behind in maintaining minutes, and similar to Princeton, Mayor Tony Mack also has suggested in the past that the  audio recordings of meetings should be considered the comprehensive minutes.

Councilwoman Jenny Crumiller said she supports the idea of streamlining minutes because it would increase the turnaround time for their completion and approval.

“Taking minutes involves some kinds of interpretation,” Crumiller said. “If you stick to decisions made and streamline the minutes they are more accurate and are done more quickly. There is no better record than a video.”

But Councilman Patrick Simon opposed the move, highlighting the importance of transparency. He pointed out that minutes are easy to review quickly, but videos are not searchable and people would have to seek out information on the videos by watching the entire video until the issue they are interested in comes up.

“The things we say ought to be part of the public record and be easy to find,” Simon said.

Lempert said an official can submit something in writing at the meeting if the official wants it included in the official record, and that public comment would be included.

“It’s more a matter of prioritizing our time,” she said regarding the issue of keeping minutes. “We have trouble getting through the volume of work we need to get through. The minutes are important, but do we want to be spending a lot of time on past meetings versus getting through our work?”

Councilwoman Jo Butler suggested the town hire extra help temporarily to catch up on meeting minutes if necessary, but no one picked up on the suggestion.

Crumiller said written minutes are subjective and directing people to online videos would “neutralize the problem.”

Even though the session was labeled a “work session”, the council agreed to go ahead and give the new minutes system a try and see how it goes.

Last year, Mercer County Prosecutor Joe Bocchini chastised the Trenton City Council for not having up to date minutes and told the Council that going forward, minutes “should be made ‘promptly available”  to the public. He noted that a 1986 court decision defined “promptly available” as meaning within two weeks after the meeting.

Krystal Knapp

Krystal Knapp is the founding editor of Planet Princeton. She can be reached via email at editor AT planetprinceton.com. Send all letters to the editor and press releases to that email address.

  • Steve

    How about noting in the minutes the time when discussion of each topic begins and ends, and including that in the abbreviated minutes so that people can quickly find the relevant point in the video?

  • Jenny Crumiller

    Hi– “Editorializing” wasn’t the best word. The clerk decides which utterances to include in the record and which to exclude and paraphrases. it’s common for politicians to correct the clerk’s interpretation because they don’t like how it sounds.

  • SFB

    A written record is searchable, a video record is not. We should be looking for ways to make it easier for people to use technology to access information, not more difficult. Why is it so hard to produce typed minutes promptly? Many TV shows are closed-captioned in real time. With a video record, the clerk should certainly be able to type up the minutes by close of business the following day.

    As for the clerk ‘editorializing’, I would be very surprised if any member of the pubic has ever raised that as an issue. It sounds like the sort of thing that a politician might say, to try to prevent previous comments that they regret making from being entered into a written record.

  • Jenny Crumiller

    As a Princeton Council member, I welcome these comments and I’m listening — this truly is a trial. I also want to own up to being the member who promoted this idea as a solution to our minutes backlog. The “streamlined” minutes, to be turned around by the next meeting, will still record all topics of discussion as well as every vote, so anyone can quickly see the subject of our deliberations, how we voted and what the outcome was. What it won’t have are detailed comments by individual council members. For that, people can see the video. Again, I welcome the feedback and I want to know what the objection is — what do you look for in minutes? Why do you want more detail than the votes? Do you care that the comments are “editorialized” by a clerk who has to pare them down and paraphrase?

    I used to be a citizen activist and I’ll never forget being behind the other side of the dais. I’ve pored through governing body minutes on occasion. if I were looking for background on an issue beyond when the issue was decided, the actual resolution or ordinance language or how an individual voted, it really seems like searching for the item in the typed minutes and then viewing the video recording of the deliberation gives the most complete and accurate accounting of what happened pretty quickly.

    But let me know!

  • Blake Cash

    Only in Princeton would a move to reduce the record of actions by council be called “The best of both worlds” and “Transparency”.

    When I told my kids who they shouldn’t hang out with, my point to them was “If you don’t want to end up like them don’t try to be like them”

    Why does Liz Lempert want to be like Tony Mack?

  • SFB

    Princeton has a problem with municipal minutes throughout. For the Council meetings, it’s less of a problem because the video is available, but for other committees, it’s definitely an issue. They are often delayed for months or not available at all. We have no idea what was said at these meetings unless we attend in person.

    I tend to agree with Patrick Simon that video-only minutes are insufficient because they are not searchable. If we had really robust local journalism, where reporters regularly published stories on what our elected officials were saying, then it wouldn’t be as big a problem, but Town Topics and the Packet are not able to report fully what is being said.

    I don’t see it as an issue for our elected officials in terms of their time. They don’t compile the minutes, they just approve them. Given some of the disastrous decisions that have been made recently (Dudek settlement), I would prefer to see more transparency, not less.

  • Joe Small

    Once again Patrick Simon’s and Jo Butler’s comments are spot on. It’s nice to know that Princeton will be following the lead of the most dysfunctional municipality in Mercer County — Trenton. I always thought Princeton was a leader in good government. Planet Princeton seems to have done more research about what “best practices” in terms of the timely delivery and contents of minutes should be than has our “model consolidated government”

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