Commentary and information about public safety and security, intelligence and counterintelligence, open government and secrecy, and other issues in northern Idaho and eastern Washington.

Location: Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, United States

Raised in Palouse, WA. Graduated from Washington State University. US Army (Counterintelligence). US Secret Service (Technical Security Division) in Fantasyland-on-the-Potomac and Los Angeles. Now living in north Idaho.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Is the Public Record Accurate?

The approved minutes of the Coeur d'Alene City Council, a public record required by law (Idaho Code 67-2344), is hardly at the top of anyone's reading list ... unless the reader is looking for a correct account of what happened at a Council meeting.

Someone reading the Council's approved minutes would reasonably expect the minutes to be correct, accurate. However, a reader would be wrong to assume that the Council's minutes would be a complete account of the meeting. The law only requires that the minutes be correct. That raises an interesting question: How much information (context) must be included for the record to be correct, for the record to leave the reader with an accurate understanding of what happened?

Idaho Code 67-2344 clearly states which specific information must be included in the Council's minutes. More information may be included as long as the required information is present. But Idaho Code 50-207 requires that whatever the City Clerk includes in the minutes, it must be a "correct journal of the proceedings." In other words, whatever the City Clerk includes in the minutes must be accurate. To say otherwise, to say that the City Clerk need report accurately only the information required by I.C. 67-2344 while allowing the rest of the information in the Council minutes to be inaccurate, would be to allow the City Clerk to distort the public record thereby rendering it untrustworthy. That can hardly have been the intent of the Idaho legislature.

Although the Coeur d'Alene City Clerk makes contemporaneous notes during the Council meetings, the Coeur d'Alene City Council meetings have also been recorded on audio tape casettes or more recently on digital video discs (DVD). The City Clerk has access to recordings of the meetings when preparing the minutes. This alone makes accuracy achievable. It is not as if the City Clerk must rely entirely on her listening and writing skills to create an instantaneous record that may not be changed in the interest of accuracy. Indeed, the minutes of a City Council meeting are provided to Councilmen so they can publicly correct inaccuracies before they approve the minutes during the next Council meeting.

For example, the minutes of the September 5, 2006, Council meeting stated that, "Councilman Reid wished her grandson Riley Chase a Happy Birthday," during the Council Announcements agenda item. At the next Council meeting on September 19, the minutes (under Consent Calendar) reflect Councilman Reid instructed the City Clerk to correct the September 5 meeting's minutes so the spelling of her grandson's name, Reiley, would appear accurately in the public record.

Whether a public record is correct, though, can be a subjective judgment. The words used in the record may be correct and still convey a misimpression of the event if they are incomplete. Again, the law only requires correct, not complete. If a misimpression results, it may be innocent error. But if it is not innocent error, if a public record seems to include the correct words but selectively excludes context, the record can become an instrument of propaganda or disinformation. That transformation would destroy its value and credibility as a public record.

I have picked two examples to demonstrate how challenging it can be to accurately complete the public record. Both examples are from Coeur d'Alene City Council meetings in which I participated as a speaker. Please look at the actual words spoken in the meetings (transcribed as accurately as I could from the City's own audio tape and DVD) and compare them with the characterization in the Council's minutes. Ask first, "Were the words reported in the Council's approved minutes correct as required by law?" Then ask, "If the words were correctly reported, what impression did I form when I read them? Did I get a different impression reading the transcript?"

Example 1: Several of us who live in Coeur d'Alene Place spoke during the Public Comment agenda item at the May 18, 2004, Coeur d'Alene City Council meeting. Our concern was the City's failure to enforce its zoning ordinance, thereby allowing an illegal rooming house lodging four convicted felons (two on parole, two on probation) to be operated in a residential area zoned for single-family homes. In an April 14, 2004, letter to Councilman Ron Edinger, I pointed out that Idaho Code 20-234 required the state to notify the county sheriff of parolee residences and that the same law required the sheriff to notify the police. So in response to the public's comments at Council meeting on May 18, 2004, Councilman Edinger summoned Police Chief Carpenter to the podium. The minutes of the May 18, 2004, Council meeting characterize both Councilman Edinger's question and Chief Carpenter's answer. Please read how the minutes characterize both, but pay particular attention to the way the minutes characterize Chief Carpenter's answer.

FROM THE COUNCIL'S MINUTES: "Police Chief Carpenter noted that the state is required to notify the local police if a violent offender is released; however, they are not notified of other types of felon releases."

Compare that with the verbatim transcript of the exchange between Councilman Edinger and Chief Carpenter:

EDINGER: ...And, you know, it just seems strange to me that, you know, uh, you have a half-way house or whatever you want to call it in a neighborhood where there’s children, and they don’t have to do anything. I mean, you know, they don’t have to go around and ask the neighbors for, ah, is it all right, or anything of this nature. So I guess my question to, ah, the Chief...Chief, you’re back there scratching your chin. Uh, doesn’t the State or, uh, or Sheriff’s Office or the parole people or...doesn’t somebody have to, uh, uh, make the people in these neighborhoods aware of what’s going into some of these homes?

CARPENTER: You know, I think with the violent sex offenders, yes they do, but on every burglary and grand theft person, um, I’m not real sure about their Constitutional rights. I don’t know if Mike would have an idea. But we have a (unintelligible) all over town and that doesn’t happen. We’re not notified, so I’m assuming that there isn’t anything mandatory. If we have a violent offender, yes. But if we strictly have property crimes or drug, um, we are not notified of that.

EDINGER: Okay, thank you.

A person reading only the Council's minutes, maybe someone unfamiliar with the Idaho Code but interested in the quality of law enforcement leadership in Coeur d'Alene, might conclude Chief Carpenter gave an acceptable and authoritative answer to Councilman Edinger's question, even though her actual answer during the meeting revealed her unfamiliarity with Idaho Code 20-234 (CARPENTER: "We’re not notified, so I’m assuming that there isn’t anything mandatory.") At its next meeting on June 1, 2004, the City Council (including Councilman Ben Wolfinger, a Sheriff's Department Captain) voted to approve the minutes of the May 18 meeting with no corrections.

Example 2: I spoke first during the Public Comments agenda item at the November 7, 2006, Coeur d'Alene City Council meeting. I read my five-minute statement into the Council's record. The statement discussed the City's allowing an improperly licensed use of explosives at Lake City High School on November 3. After I finished reading it, Councilman Dixie Reid and I had a verbal exchange which was reported verbatim in my Whitecaps November 19, 2006, weblog post titled Explosions Shake Coeur d'Alene Place Home.

Please compare the content of my prepared statement and the transcript of my exchange with Councilman Reid to how the City Clerk characterized both in the November 7, 2006, Council meeting minutes. The link is to the Council's packet for the following meeting since the minutes of the November 7 meeting have not yet been posted on the City's website. Here's a link to a scan of the November 7 minutes with Public Comments consolidated onto one page and all subsequent Council activity excluded.

In my opinion, both sentences used by the City Clerk in the Council minutes to characterize my five-minute statement and subsequent exchange with Councilman Reid were incorrect. The words reported were used in my statement and in my exchange with Councilman Reid, but did the two-sentence reporting in the minutes correctly convey what was said? In my opinion, they did not.

In the link to the scan of the November 7 minutes, look at the City Clerk's characterization of the comments made by Mr. Dennis Hinrichsen. Mr. Hinrichsen publicly commented on a different issue after I finished my comment. Notice down in the characterization that Councilman Reid's statement regarding LCDC's use of executive sessions was included. Notice further down in it that Councilman Kennedy's comments were included.

Now go back to the City Clerk's characterization of my statement. There is no mention of Councilman Reid's comments (included verbatim in my November 19, 2006 weblog post linked above). Those comments by Councilman Reid revealed that City Councilmen had been contacted by telephone and a majority had verbally authorized the pyrotechnic permit for the November 3 use of explosives at Lake City High School. The Council then agreed to ratify its earlier "telephonic non-vote" at the next Council meeting.

That seems to be a clear violation of the Idaho Open Meeting Law. City business, the Council's authorizing a permit, was conducted in secret over the telephone. Ratifying that illegal action at a Council meeting after the event deprived the public of an opportunity raise timely objection to the use of explosives on school grounds in close proximity to private residences in Coeur d'Alene Place.

Councilman Reid's comments to me at the Council meeting but not mentioned in the minutes were evidence of the apparent violation of the Idaho Open Meeting Law. (What is not in the minutes is on the DVD for which I paid the City's $30 fee to obtain.) In this example, the minutes of the City Council meeting, an official record required by law to be correct, appears to have excluded evidence of a violation of the Idaho Open Meeting Law by some members of the City Council. Councilman Reid's comments were relevant to the issue of my request that the Consent Calendar item be withdrawn until after the Council had an opportunity to review my letter, yet there was no mention in the minutes that she commented at all.

Some will no doubt say this is a small matter of no significance. Maybe. Then again, the public depends on the accuracy of its public records to judge the quality of its elected officials and government employees and their work. If those public records are incorrect because of laziness, carelessness, indifference, or malice, the public's ability to have timely and effective participation in its government is diminished.


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