County minutes queried

By: 
Alexis Barker

Alexis Barker

NLJ Reporter

 

The Weston County commissioners plan to set aside time to discuss the county’s process for publishing its minutes after concerns were raised by both News Letter Journal Publisher and Editor Bob Bonnar and Commissioner Tracy Hunt. 

Before approving the minutes from their March 5 meeting at their March 19 meeting, Hunt raised concerns over the length of the minutes being produced by County Clerk Becky Hadlock. Later that meeting, during a public hearing for a budget amendment, Bonnar told the commissioners that he has concerns over not only the budget hearing but also that the minutes produced and circulated appeared to be incorrect in some cases and not what was approved. 

Chairman Tony Barton said that it was important to note that the minutes had not been discussed before the March 25 meeting and that the clerk was operating “under the assumption she was doing as we wish.” 

“I am a little concerned about how our minutes are being published and how extensive the length is,” Hunt said. “I am concerned the chairman is not given time to review them before publication.” 

He asked if there was any reason Hadlock could not get the minutes to the chairman before the “unofficial” minutes are published in the Weston County Gazette, the county’s official paper. Hadlock responded that she could do that. 

“We have to have a way and manner for him to review them before the publication deadline,” Hunt said.

Hunt admitted that he was unsure how long the minutes take to prepare but that they should be sent for review as soon as they are completed. 

Commissioner Nathan Todd asked whether or not the minutes were that of the commission or the clerk. 

“We maybe need definition. I understand the need to ensure they are accurate, but don’t we do that in the meeting?” Todd asked. “I don’t have a problem with seeing them, but should we be editing them, potentially, out of public meeting?” 

Hunt said that the flip side is that if they are in fact the clerk’s minutes, then they should be generic without the commissioners having the opportunity to approve them. 

“Why even approve them if they are not the minutes of the Commission?” Hunt asked. “I think it is more in the role of secretary. She is not the person who commits these minutes and proceedings into history. That is the role of the Commission and obviously the Commission could decline or approve.”

County Attorney Alex Berger said that, under statute, it was the clerk’s duty to prepare the minutes but that the commissioners were in charge of defining the mechanism in which it was done. 

Todd again said that he has no issue with the commissioners seeing the minutes before the meeting at which they are to be approved but that he does not believe the commissioners should have the opportunity to edit the minutes out of the public’s eye. 

“They are edited by our clerk out of the public eye,” Hunt argued. “We are spending more money with Becky (Hadlock), and if they are not the final minutes of the meeting, it is wasted money on publication.” 

“I feel the minutes have been inaccurate, mischaracterized, and conversations have been mischaracterized. I think part of the problem is Becky doesn’t understand what is going on. Things are paraphrased without understanding of the underlying issues,” Hunt said, noting that the minutes have become a “he said, she said” outline of the meetings. 

“If you look through history, nowhere has there ever been an extensive ‘he said, she said’ dialogue,” Hunt said. “We have two able reporters able to pick up those issues. For instance, Commissioner Ertman saying the public would be flabbergasted. It don’t belong in the minutes. It is not a challenge to see how long you can make them. Brevity is the problem and I hope they get better.”

He said that the minutes should only state the reason why the issue came before the board, who was present, that a discussion took place and how the “vote went down.” 

Todd said that he has no issue with brevity but has an issue with letting the press report on everything because it is up to the paper’s discretion what makes it in the paper. 

Barton said that the way to get around this issue was to have the clerk simply state in the minutes what decision was made, removing all reference of discussion or who said what. 

The minutes later became the topic of discussion again when Bonnar raised concerns over the second item included in the budget amendment notice for money to be removed from the cash reserve. The second item in the advertisement was to move funds to the commissioners travel line item. 

“I see the motion in the minutes, and it makes no mention of moving money to that line item,” Bonnar said. “Why was it included in the notice for this budget amendment? It was not part of the conversation.” 

He asked who directed the addition of the item to the budget amendment. Hadlock said that Barton had directed her to add it. Barton said that this was not the time for the commissioners to respond to the statements of Bonnar because it was a public hearing. 

“Since you won’t respond, and it is my opportunity to talk, I am forced to make assumptions,” Bonnar said. 

Bonnar said he assumed that the need for extra money in the account was for a trip to meet with Golden West Technologies in Rapid City, regarding an article published in the News Letter Journal

“I have additional concern with that set of minutes,” Bonnar said. 

Bonnar then presented a copy of the Jan. 15 commissioners minutes, as well as the county website minutes from Feb. 5. 

“A motion was made to approve the Jan. 15 minutes without amendments or changes. However, the unofficial minutes are different than the minutes that appear on the website. They were changed and I don’t see a record of where that happened,” he said.

Bonnar presented the full excerpt of minutes published in the Weston County Gazette and later approved by the commissioners, which stated that there was a meeting with Golden West “about an article.” The minutes published permanently on the website state that the meeting was attended to discuss “a publication in the News Letter Journal. “

“They are very specific about naming my business, and as a member of the public and businessman, if I would have seen the notice, I would have been here to discuss this,” Bonnar said. “There was no amendment offered or changed minutes, unless there was correspondence going between you and the clerk making those changes.”

Bonnar said that he believes such changes would be violating the spirt of the law. 

“I am also very concerned about the fact that it says we named account names and server names,” Bonnar said, noting that account names were published but that two of those accounts should have been removed because they were used by people who were no longer employees of the county by the time the story appeared. 

“The problem we have is, I have read over the story and there are no server names,” Bonnar said. 

Bonnar said that the examples he cited are “abuse of the record.” 

After the public hearing was closed, Barton admitted that he was the one that directed Hadlock to add the second item to the budget hearing. 

“I take full responsibility for putting this other thing in the budget amendment hearing. I meant to discuss it at the meeting,” Barton said. According to Barton, he had intended to re-advertise the budget amendment with the proper information and a motion from the commission. 

“I appreciate Bonnar coming in front of us, and his concerns are extremely valid,” Todd said, adding that he did not believe anything was done intentionally or under malice. 

Hadlock said that the minutes published in the Weston County Gazette were what was approved by the commissioners and that she had not meant to post the ones that referred to the News Letter Journal to the website. 

The meeting attended by county employees with Golden West, Todd said, was for a seminar and not to discuss any publication. 

“I am hearing that it was pre-planned, but both sets of minutes say that these people went in response to a newspaper story that came out two days earlier,” Bonnar said. “It is stated in the minutes that three individuals went to discuss a newspaper article in the News Letter with Golden West. That is what your record states.”

Bonnar further explained his stance on the minutes.

“This is not just simple oversight, and, if it is I as a citizen and businessman, I shouldn’t be expected to go through every set of minutes, which are incredibly long,” Bonnar said. “That is specifically calling out my business, that you made clear you want nothing to do with. I have a responsibility to tell the public what you are doing, and I don’t appreciate my business getting attacked for it.” 

The commissioners ended up approving the first portion of the budget amendment, moving $110,000 out of the cash reserve, as well as approving the advertisement of the other portion of the budget amendment again. 

Later in the meeting, the commissioners agreed to add the minutes to the next meeting’s agenda, stating that they were unclear exactly what Bonnar’s complaints were. Todd noted that the commissioners should prepare an apology to Bonnar and the News Letter Journal

Hadlock told the commissioners that the minutes published on the website were the ones approved by the commissioners and that the minutes published in the Weston County Gazette were changed to remove the News Letter Journal’s name at the suggestion of the paper’s publisher and editor Lisa LeVasseur. 

Category:

News Letter Journal

News Letter Journal
14 W. Main St.
P.O. Box 40
Newcastle, WY 82701
Ph: (307) 746-2777
Fax: (307) 746-2660

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