Gazette: “City board swamped by minutes backlog”

Today’s Gazette reports on problems citizens are having obtaining recent minutes from Northampton’s Conservation Commission:

The commission’s minutes from sessions this year still have not been made available to the public. Minutes from meetings last year are now being posted on the city’s Web site with the help of an intern…

The Conservation Commission’s minutes have become a focal point for residents, including the North Street Neighborhood Association, engaged in the long-running debate on a proposed ordinance governing wetlands and vernal pools. The City Council is expected to take a second and final vote on the controversial law next week…

…under the state’s Public Records Law, minutes of an open meeting – even in draft form – are matters of public record. That means they must be available to the public at the close of the meeting…

Without access to the minutes, [Lilly] Lombard said those concerned about the proposed ordinance have had to rely largely on anecdotal descriptions of past decisions, or sift through files of permit conditions. She described the lack of access to the documents as “an impediment to the democratic process…”

“It’s embarrassing,” [Paul] Wetzel [chairman of the Conservation Commission] said by phone Wednesday. “You should be able to get (minutes) in a week or two.”

Here is an example of material in the minutes that can shed light on Northampton’s wetlands regulations. This comes from the Conservation Commission’s 2004 minutes (PDF). In the case of Dudanake NOI, 12/9/04, the applicant proposed to disturb 26% of a 50-foot buffer. The minutes report: “Sweetser asked if the NCC has ever permitted a project with this much disturbance. Body and Carbin said no.”

By contrast, in recent city council meetings Conservation and Land Use Planner Bruce Young has told councilors that it has not been unusual to permit applicants to conduct activity within the 50-foot buffer, at least in the more urban zones of the city. It would help clarify matters if the Conservation Commission provided a comprehensive report on all activity it has permitted within 100 feet of wetlands in recent years.

See also:

Northampton wins 2007 award from Common Cause’s Massachusetts Campaign for Open Government
The Campaign states, “With the growth of the internet, everyone should be able to obtain important information about their local government with the click of a mouse.”