Digital Open Meeting Law Minutes Save Time and Trouble
Town of Mashpee
Town Clerk Tames Her Meeting Minutes Monster
The New England tradition of citizen-engaged democracy and town meetings runs deep in Cape Cod’s Town of Mashpee. A quick peek at the Town’s website offers up 39 boards, committees and commissions made up of elected and appointed members, running from Affordable Housing to Zoning. The Open Meetings Law (OML) of the State of Massachusetts requires that the approved minutes of all their public meetings be retained in accordance with the Public Records Law (PRL) and made available for public review.
In Mashpee, that task is included on the long list of Town Clerk Deborah Dami’s responsibilities. As adopted in 2006, Chapter 7 of the Town bylaws provides for minutes of all Town boards, committees, and commissions to be filed with the Town Clerk within two business days after approval and retained in accordance with State regulations.
Mashpee’s “Arrested Development” Spurs Meeting Minutes Retention Reform
“Not all towns handle minutes the way we do,” Clerk Dami acknowledges. “The Town accepted the bylaw requiring the Town Clerk be the repository for all original minutes in response to residents’ concerns about various approvals given to builders at Southport.” She’s referring to a 264-acre development that originally broke ground in 1985. Today the completed project is hailed as an award-winning model for active-adult housing and developer Ronald Bonvie was honored as Mashpee Citizen of the Year. But midway in its history, with 109 units built, the project fell on financial hard times and languished in bankruptcy court for a considerable span of years.
When work finally resumed on the 750-home development, there were lots of questions about past hearings and reviews and permits issued by the various Town bodies that oversee the myriad details of planning and construction. As the Town records point person, “Everybody came to me looking for information,” remembers Dami. At times, the ensuing research was an extremely difficult experience. “Different bodies had different ways of storing minutes, when I could track them down, or if they even kept them,” she says. “Everybody involved saw we had a problem. Southport really led the Town to change the bylaws to consolidate minutes retention at the Clerk’s Office.”
An Incomplete – and Inconvenient – Answer to A Growing Challenge
Dami dutifully organized a vertical storage system, periodically lugging older sets of minutes up to the Town Hall attic. At 50 boxes and counting, research involved climbing stairs and a certain amount of faith. “I prayed that the Excel spreadsheet had the correct documents logged in Box 47,” says Dami. “But sometimes the log was ‘Junk in; junk out.’ I could only hope that I wasn’t going to find myself up to my knees in boxes trying to find the right box for a particular set of minutes.”
Meanwhile, an on-site survey by a state archivist highlighted problems with the Town’s various document storage spaces. In particular, her report cited attic storage of committee minutes and “large quantities of [departmental] materials” estimated at about 2 million paper documents, records and maps, according to an article published in the Mashpee News. The archivist suggested the town consider digitizing its records.
Electronic Content Management Gets A Boost As Laserfiche Replaces Paper Records
Article 9 of the 2015 Town Report notes the approval of a motion to fund “the purchase and implementation of a Laserfiche Digital Records Management System to facilitate quicker access to files, reduce storage space costs, and improve information security,” starting with “1,731,989 existing paper documents for Mashpee Inspectional Services, which includes the Board of Health, as well as the Building, Conservation and Planning Departments,” as Phase 1.
“I got in on the second wave,” says Dami, “and by then I’d seen the power of Laserfiche. I was handling a public inquiry about a builder who might have been doing business under two or three different names. I sent my request up to the Building Department, expecting to get copies in a week or so. Instead, the Building Department Administrative Assistant walked into my office about an hour later and said ‘Here’s your report.’ Later, Clay Nicholson, our GIS guy, used his experience with Laserfiche to clue me in on how to find additional information by providing more search parameters.”
Zapping Minutes Into An Orderly Online Process Of Retention, Search And Retrieval
Not too much later, it was Dami’s turn. “Dave Delvecchio, our IT Director, came in and said, ‘What do you have that you’d like uploaded?’” she recalls. “For disaster recovery purposes, we scanned our vital records and old, hand-written town documents, not that we access them very often.” Otherwise, digitizing meeting minutes retention was at the top of her list. She created a Laserfiche Repository folder with 61 subfolders earmarked for possible use by a host of town bodies, including the schools.
Now when Dami receives approved minutes, she scans them against the appropriate Laserfiche template and they are added to the repository with DoD security. Departments on Laserfiche can access minutes directly, while other staffers and the public can get to them on Laserfiche WebLink using their browsers. “Eventually,” says Dami, “I want to go fully electronic and have people email attachments that I can print to Laserfiche or scans I can upload with digital signatures. Currently we are storing the originals. We haven’t made a policy decision yet, but I think that when everybody is warm and fuzzy with Laserfiche we’ll discard the paper records, because Laserfiche is permanent storage as far as I am concerned.”
Web Browser Accessibility Beats Dusty Bankers Boxes For Efficiency and Convenience
“Laserfiche makes my life a lot easier,” observes Dami. “I joke that it’s the altar to which I pray to find a document. When people call, I can send them to the Town website as an option, which helps with FOIA requests. The younger generation ‘gets it’ right away. Sometimes I do need to talk first-time users through finding and printing what they need from WebLink, but Laserfiche is saving everyone a lot of legwork. Now we have everything in one spot. Builders and contractors can pull what they need from the Zoning Board of Approval folder, for example, and save the time and expense of a trip to Town Hall and paying for copies. They’re thrilled by that. And I’m done with running upstairs to fill records requests.”
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