Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

Getting ready for webcasts

by Dave Bretl - Walworth County Administrator

May 05, 2011

Walworth County government has been gearing up over the past few months to broadcast streaming video of its board and committee meetings over the Internet. Once the system is up and running, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to watch either live or archived versions of county meetings. I’m glad the board made the commitment to “webcast” its meetings. Even though it will probably never challenge the ratings of American Idol, the public benefits from knowing more about the government it elects.

During the past 20 years I have been involved in local government, technology has dramatically improved the public’s access to information. It has also added significant duties to the job of the staff person responsible for providing administrative support to the board or committee. In Walworth County, the County Clerk provides support for the County Board. Keeping committee proceedings straight is the responsibility of department heads. They, in turn, rely heavily upon an administrative assistant. These employees perform other duties within county government. Every month, however, they are pressed into service to ensure that county supervisors and the public stay informed and that the county complies with the Open Meetings Law. Supporting a committee used to involve typing up the meeting agenda and taking minutes. Both of these tasks remain important responsibilities. The job, however, has expanded to include a whole lot more.

The support process begins with agenda preparation. After committee chairpersons give final approval, it is the responsibility of the administrative assistant to type up the agenda and assemble the informational material that accompanies it. The “packet,” as it is often called, consists of memos, draft resolutions and reports that pertain to agenda items. The entire packet, which can range from 20 to more than 200 pages, is then scanned, posted on the county’s website and e-mailed to elected officials, department heads and the media. Uploading the agenda also permits its display on four public computer kiosks located in various county buildings. Paper versions of the agenda packet are assembled, for delivery by courier to supervisors who prefer the “hard copy,” rather than virtual version of agenda materials. State law requires only that agendas be publicly posted. A few years ago the board directed that the packets be made available to the public, as well. Supervisors reasoned the meeting would make a lot more sense to constituents if they could see and read the actual documents that were being discussed.

Every so often an agenda may need to be amended prior to the meeting date. State law permits amendments to be made up to 24 hours before a meeting. Since most supervisors don’t appreciate last-minute surprises, we try to minimize agenda amendments. Sometimes, however, they are unavoidable, given the business needs of the county. In those cases, the administrative assistant must prepare a revised agenda and post and distribute it in the same manner as the original.

Attention to detail is critical on the day of the meeting. The county board room, which doubles as a committee meeting room, must be configured for the particular committee. For after-hours meetings, outside doors must be unlocked and then secured when the meeting ends. The sound system and audio recorder must be started. Readying cameras and starting the associated computer program to webcast the meeting will be added to the “to do” list in the next few months. The well-prepared assistant brings additional copies of the documents that will be discussed at the meeting.

When the actual meeting begins, the administrative assistant’s attention turns to minute-taking. Achieving the proper balance between readability and detail is an art. While state law requires only that motions and votes be recorded, elected officials and the public usually appreciate a summary of the debate that led to the decision. This is the first pitfall for any recording secretary. It is not unheard of for elected officials to complain that they were misquoted in the minutes or that their remarks were taken out of context. It is possible a particular official’s remarks may not have made it into the minutes, at all. There are a number of reasons why discrepancies occur. Most commonly, the minute-taker may have omitted or restated the remarks for the sake of brevity. Occasionally, the elected official may realize that his or her remarks appear to be less thoughtful on paper than when they were originally spoken. Disputes are rare and most are handled amicably. Meetings are recorded so it is always possible to review the recording if officials feel strongly about the issue.

The assistants’ work is far from over after the meeting ends. Draft minutes, which may be five or more pages in length, need to be prepared and distributed to officials. When our video system is up and running it will be the responsibility of the assistant to create a link to the video on the county’s website.

At least a dozen different administrative assistants keep county committees running smoothly. Written procedures detail the steps that need to be taken. A style manual ensures that minutes and agendas are uniform in appearance. Occasional training, as well as constant communication among committee support personnel, keeps everyone on the “same sheet of music.” If you want to see the important work of these employees, log on to the county website at www.co.walworth.wi.us. There you will find committee agendas, packets and, we hope, very shortly, video coverage of meetings.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors.