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It’s time Winter Garden made city commission meeting recordings readily accessible

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Norine Dworkin

Founding Editor

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

It’s time Winter Garden made city commission meeting recordings readily accessible

Norine Dworkin/VoxPopuli

An excerpt from the "Matters from the Public" section of the Feb. 11 city commission meeting minutes. A lot of detail is conveyed about what the speaker prior to VoxPopuli editor Norine Dworkin said. So, why didn't this journalist's question to the mayor receive the same detailed explanation?

We are living in a visual, digital age, and it’s long past time the Winter Garden City Commission joined it. The city needs a video library of its commission, committee and board meetings that can be readily accessed from the city website — without a records request or password.

These days when everyone has a movie studio in their pocket, filming meetings could not be easier. No need even to secure cable channels as Orlando (Orange TV) and Ocoee (Ocoee TV) do. Simply pop an iPhone on a tripod, point it at the dais, upload the video to the city website or YouTube channel — as Windermere, Oakland, Winter Park, Maitland and Sanford do — and voila! The AV tech is Steven Spielberg. 

Currently, the city documents city commission meetings through GoToWebinar. Participants who want to watch from home follow an agenda that blocks out the screen as they listen to audio. To retrieve a recording requires a records request to the city clerk, along with a password that expires within 14 days. If you're looking for a recording from a meeting held in, let's say, 2016, you may be out of luck since recordings are only required to be archived for two years. The public shouldn’t have to hurdle obstacles like this for information they’re entitled to under Florida's Sunshine Law.

Still, audio is at least a step in the right direction since it provides an exact record of events. Whereas in written meeting minutes, events can get shaded.

I know this because I asked Mayor John Rees a direct question at the Feb. 11 city commission meeting. Our exchange was not accurately reported in the minutes of that meeting.

That evening, I asked Mayor Rees when he would announce his endorsements for the Mar. 9 elections.

The mayor did not like my question.

The mayor did not answer my question.

What the mayor said was, “When? When I’m ready ... I guess. I don’t have to … so… yeah … endorse anyone. So, no ma’am. I haven’t done anything yet.”

After I pressed him further on whether he would announce endorsements in the future, Rees said, “This is not the forum for that. You can call my office.”

Journalists will ask questions, and politicians will choose not to answer. Sometimes we ask questions anticipating the politician won’t answer, but we ask anyway. Not asking would be derelict. Still, the leader of a city should be prepared for someone to ask about endorsements during election season. It kinda comes with the territory.

And, yet, this is how the minutes of the Feb. 11 city commission meeting characterized our exchange: “Norine Dworkin of VoxPopuli asked the mayor a personal question.” (You can hear the entire exchange here.)

Minutes of government meetings are meant to be an accurate portrayal of events. Nothing about that sentence reflects that this was a question to Mayor Rees from a journalist about an upcoming election. The way it’s presented in the minutes, anyone might gather that I’d asked the mayor what his favorite ice cream flavor is or — as a 17-year-old Laetitia Thompson famously asked Bill Clinton on MTV in 1994 — whether he wore boxers or briefs. Now THAT is personal. Clinton gamely answered that he wore briefs.

I’m definitely not diving into the mayor’s choice of undergarments (TMI, folks, TMI). But when you do the people’s business, it is the people’s business what you do. Asking an election-related question is not personal. It’s what journalists do. Answering or not answering is what politicians do. And maintaining an accurate record of events is what the city clerk is meant to do.

I sent an email request to have the minutes corrected to the city clerk, the city manager, and Mayor Rees, but received no reply. When I followed up with the city clerk in person, I was told the minutes had been “approved,” so no changes would be made.

That made me wonder what the commission was approving. Misrepresentation? Inaccuracy? Obfuscation?

It also got me thinking about what else might have been shaded over the years in the city commission’s meeting minutes when facts were less pleasant than a commissioner may have liked. And who, exactly, has final editing privileges to make that particular call?

One way to make this process more transparent is to post audio files (and later video files) along with meeting minutes. Let Winter Garden citizens find them easily and access them at their leisure. The same folks who prefer audiobooks to bound copies are likely to enjoy listening to how all types of city meetings are conducted. And since data storage is so cheap, these files could be left up indefinitely. If only to keep the record straight.

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