Hey, Wait a Minute | Milking meeting minutes from 2017 for all they’re worth—sounds like fun

Note: “Hey, Wait a Minute” is an occasional B Square Beacon series that highlights meeting minutes and other documentation of local government meetings in the Bloomington, Indiana area.

Image links to audio with transcript. (Click on the blue arrow at the bottom of the screen to play the audio.)

At last Wednesday’s Bloomington city council meeting, city clerk Nicole Bolden got a thank-you from councilmember Susan Sandberg.

Sandberg had asked at the council’s Friday work session if councilmembers could be provided with the minutes for some meetings that took place in 2017.

It was in 2017 when the council took up the question of annexations, a process that was stopped by the state legislature that year.

After a Supreme Court decision in Bloomington’s favor late last year, on Wednesday, the council re-started the annexation process.

Bolden forwarded to councilmembers the 2017 meeting minutes. And on Wednesday, Sandberg said, “I found [the meeting minutes] to be very helpful, just kind of bringing my memory back to where we were in the process.”

How does a Zoom video conference auto-transcript stack up against the clerk’s meeting minutes?

Just by way of background, for more than a year, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Zoom video conference interface has been used to conduct city council meetings. Since December, the version of the Zoom platform used by the council has generated automatic closed captions, and a corresponding automated transcript.

If you’ve ever had a look at the automated transcript, you know the clerk’s minutes are obviously  way better meeting records than the auto-transcripts that are generated by Zoom. The auto-transcripts can barely be described as a record of the meetings.

If Bolden had given Sandberg an auto-transcript of the 2017 meetings, I don’t think a thank-you would have been forthcoming.

Still, those auto-transcriptions are useful, not just for the real-time closed captioning. Did you join a meeting late and wonder if a topic was already discussed? Search the real-time transcript during the meeting to find out. What was that number the consultant said a couple of minutes ago? Check the real-time transcript and you’ll see that number.

City council and other governmental organizations are now poised to return to in-person meetings in the next few weeks.

So it’s a good time to reflect on which records of council meetings are currently available, and how average-bear residents might bootstrap their own records in the future.

The Bloomington city council’s trove of meeting minutes, to which Clerk Bolden adds and which she stewards, goes back way more than four years.

The date for the first set of meeting minutes in the online archive of Bloomington city council minutes is Aug. 1, 1950.

That is a great resource.

What kind of business was the Bloomington city council transacting seven decades ago? Approving an ordinance about milk:

Councilwoman Woolery gave the Milk Ordinance, Ordinance #8, 1950, its third reading. Councilwoman Woolery moved that City Attorney Regester be given permission to change the wording of a phrase in Section 2, paragraph 2 as follows: “- – -, no milk may be sold or distributed which contains less than 8% of solids not fat,- – -“. Seconded by Councilman Chitwood, motion carried.
[Aug. 1, 1950 meeting minutes]

A lot might have been said at the meeting about the milk ordinance, that got left out of those meeting minutes. Maybe Chitwood told a milk joke. Maybe it got left out of the meeting minutes only because the clerk thought the joke was too cheesy.

Meeting minutes, as described by Robert’s Rules are supposed to be “a record of what was done at the meeting, not what was said by the members.” [Robert’s Rules of Order Newly Revised, 12th edition (p. 510)] And Robert’s Rules are, under Bloomington’s local law, supposed to be the authority for meeting procedures not specified in city code.

The “memoranda” of meetings required to be kept by public agencies under Indiana’s Open Door Law (ODL) is what many other states describe as the “meeting minutes.” [IC 5-14-1.5-4]

The ODL memoranda that are kept on meetings just have to include: the date, time, and place of the meeting; the members of the governing body recorded as either present or absent; the general substance of all matters proposed, discussed, or decided; and a record of all votes taken by individual members if there is a roll call.

The Bloomington city clerk keeps the minutes nowadays in a way that is more detailed than bare-bones memoranda. That’s been the custom for decades.

The city clerk is an independent, elected official, not the city council’s employee or staff. So the custom could change.

Whatever the custom is that gets worked out between the city clerk and city council, the public has some new technical options of its own—which have been highlighted by the use of Zoom for meetings during the pandemic.

The auto-transcript generated by Zoom is save-able, if you can find the little clickable bit that downloads it as a text file to your hard drive. That gives you a time-stamped text file of raw text.

But the speakers are not labeled. The auto-transcript is also not 100-percent accurate. Sometimes it can be quite bad. Because it’s separated from the audio, it’s not as great a tool as it could be.

What do I use? Otter.ai.

I record the meeting audio directly to an .m4a file on my hard drive. I upload the file to Otter.ai, where I pay $10 a month for 5,000 minutes of auto-transcription a month.

The good thing about Otter.ai is that you can correct the text to match the audio. You can assign speakers their names, and for subsequent speaking turns, Otter.ai figures out who is who. Otter.ai even recognizes the same speakers for subsequent recordings.

You can search for text across several recordings, not just the current recording. You can share the results with others! Here’s a brief excerpt from the March 29, 2017 city council meeting as transcribed by Otter.ai and lightly corrected by me:

March 29, 2017 excerpt: “The Area 7 does not.”

I think it might make for a great community organizing project for a group to start working, perhaps in coordination with the city clerk’s office, to create a publicly accessible, perfectly accurate, speaker-identified transcription (tied to audio) for all future city council meetings.

Otter.ai is not the only such platform on the market. It’s just the one I happened to land on.

An important consideration is how to maintain a local archive of the material that gets uploaded and processed by Otter.ai. It would be a shame to invest tens of thousands of volunteer hours correcting auto-transcripts, only to see Otter.ai disappear from the internet for unexplained reasons.

In any case, this kind of technology gives us, as the rank-and-file public, new options—whether we prefer records of government meetings to be like whole milk, with all the fat, or like skim milk, so we can drink the whole glass without feeling too full.

2 thoughts on “Hey, Wait a Minute | Milking meeting minutes from 2017 for all they’re worth—sounds like fun

  1. I suspect that if anyone 50 years in the future looks back at the current Memoranda being kept, they will be completely mystified (not to mention bored). While they may meet legal requirements, they are not largely descriptive of “the general substance of all matters proposed, discussed, or decided.” If you look at minutes kept of random years in the Council’s history, you find detailed narrative summaries of subjects discussed, major positions expressed by individual Council members, as well as indications of the substance of public comment. It is in these details that history is documented. The current practice of Memoranda is like reducing “Romeo and Juliet” to a Cliff Notes plot summary: “Boy and girl fall in love and die.” More importantly, from a public access perspective, they give the illusion of transparency while ignoring the process by which history is made. I have to wonder what precipitated this shift in documentation?

  2. As a former Deputy City Clerk, it was always so fascinating to read through documents back to the 1800s.

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