A City Council effort to save money has apparently backfired, causing city planning commissioners to call a new system of recording the city's meetings "of little use" in a letter to the council.
When the Environmental Planning Commission received its most recent meeting records or "action minutes" at the Nov. 16 meeting, members saw only a few pages of vote tallies. Gone were the pages and pages of summarized comments from previous meetings.
Commissioner Rachel Grossman said the new records were "almost useless."
"These new minutes have been consolidated down to two pages and don't truly reflect how we feel," said Commissioner John McAllister. "For the four to five thousand dollars we're going to potentially save, it's not worth it."
Council members have said that the city's new video recordings of meetings are a suitable replacement, but commissioners disagreed.
The planning commission unanimously voted to send a letter to the City Council to recommend restoring "the old way" of doing things, as McAllister put it. Commissioners said they would also be trying to get other volunteer commissions and boards who were affected to sign the letter.
"This change is discouraging to us and future potential volunteers who spend a lot of time deliberating and want the many hours we serve to be meaningful," wrote Commissioner Todd Fernandez in the letter, which he drafted.
"Following the discussion on video is far less efficient than reading a well-prepared, complete set of minutes," the letter reads. "Videos are also not searchable, and since they are only available live on cable or on the city's website, they are not accessible to all residents."
Mayor Jac Siegel said the council made the decision after learning that the number of people from the general public who looked at meeting minutes was "miniscule." But he added, "I actually agree" with the commission's opposition to the change.
"Having served on the Planning Commission for years I understand where they are coming from," Siegel said. "I have on occasion used their minutes to see what their thinking was. I have not gone back and listened to the tapes."
Siegel said that the council would likely reconsider the decision at a future meeting.
New technology the answer?
Several planning commissioners expressed interest in using voice recognition technology to automatically transcribe meeting discussions.
"In 2011, there is part of me that has a problem with having someone sit and tediously type these minutes," said Commissioner Chris Clark at the Nov. 16 meeting. He called for using voice recognition software to do the job "as soon as the technology is available. Granted, it won't be perfect but it would be better than nothing. It would cost money but would still be less money in the long run than actually paying a person to transcribe them."
Resident Julie Lovins commented on the mention of Google's voice recognition technology, which many use to transcribe their voicemails. "We do have Google Voice in our household," she said, adding that one transcribed message was impossible to understand.
Commissioner Fernandez made a pitch for the voice recognition technology developed by Apple, where he is employed as a software engineering manager.
"Another question is the technology aspect and I can certainly bring that up with the mayor tomorrow," Fernandez said. "It seems like with Google -- and Apple has some interesting technology too -- that here may be something that can be done sooner rather than later."
Fernandez's pitch of his employer's product may have been a minor violation of the Political Reform Act, but City Attorney Jannie Quinn said she couldn't say for sure without doing a thorough analysis.