Where are the Meeting Minutes?
By Joyce Westner
Oct 10. The bad news is not every town committee abides by the state law that minutes must be published. The good news is Town Clerk MaryEllen Lannon has been getting after committee chairs to send them to her and many of them are doing so.
In 2022, Town Meeting formed a Communications Study Committee to research and report on the problems with communications from the town to the residents. Lannon was a member of the committee and is among the town government folks working to improve the issues. Full disclosure, your News editor was also a member of the committee and has been researching the particular issue of where the minutes are. (And despite improvements to the town’s website, it’s still tricky to find the page with the minutes. Hint, it’s on the Agenda Center page: https://www.winchester.us/agendacenter.) Even more good news is that the town has contracted with the Collins Center Consulting Group to review the town’s webpage, among other things.
This summer, I sent Lannon an email about the missing minutes and learned that she’s been raising awareness among the boards and committees to observe the state’s Open Meeting Law, which says, “All minutes, both open and executive session, must be created and approved by the public body in a timely manner. Timely manners are considered to be within the next three public body meetings or 30 days from the date of the meeting, whichever is later, unless the public body can show good cause for further delay.”
Lannon told me that the key word is “written,” which doesn’t specify where they should be kept. While residents expect them to be posted on the town’s website, that’s not part of the requirement, although Lannon says, “We’ve been doing that since 2010.” Prior to that, hard copies of the minutes were sent to the Public Library.
Some committees, such as the Select and Planning Boards, have paid staff who write the minutes, funded through the town department they’re connected with. The town’s planning department pays for their secretary, but other groups with no connection, elect their own recording secretary who may not understand the requirement. For example, the Cultural Council, which gives out state money in the form of grants, hasn’t posted minutes in the past three years. “The wisdom of the elders has been lost,” says Lannon, who talks about the generational shift, where veteran volunteers were ready to pass the baton, but when Covid hit, vacancies piled up, and Zoom meetings started, so the folks in their 40s willing to fill the void didn’t have the advantage of learning from those who’d retired.
Then there are committees that had been continuing to send hard copies to the library until Lannon reminded them to switch to electronic copies. Chris Nixon, a politically active resident, digitized library records and brought a hard drive to Jenn Cafarella in the Town Manager’s office. According the Lannon, Cafarella has been working on finding the files that need to be posted, such as the Educational Facilities Planning & Building Committee, whose minutes Lannon says are “immaculate.”
Other committees, such as the Board of Library Trustees (whose members are elected) and the Council on Aging, which meets at the Jenks Center, choose to store them at their own facilities and their minutes never get sent to the Town Clerk. The School Committee posts theirs on their own website. Ironically, the Board of Health minutes have been delayed due to an illness. According to Board of Health Chair Ruth Trimarchi, “the Administrative Assistant has been out on workers comp for three or four months now. Once she gets back there will be a backlog, but as soon as she gets them ready, we will quickly vote them and get them posted.”
But anyone interested in getting minutes can file a “Public Records Request” with the town, and within ten days Lannon will research and report her findings to the person making the request. And where’s that, you might ask? Well hidden, but here’s the link: https://townofwinchesterma.nextrequest.com/
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