Editorial: Less detail, less open

Posted 11/26/19

Following a somewhat familiar theme, the Barrington town government has again announced it is reducing a service to taxpayers (tax bills, of course, remain the same).

The latest announcement came …

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Editorial: Less detail, less open

Posted

Following a somewhat familiar theme, the Barrington town government has again announced it is reducing a service to taxpayers (tax bills, of course, remain the same).

The latest announcement came a few weeks ago at the Barrington Town Council meeting, when the council president told fellow councilors, and the public, that the town clerk will no longer record meeting minutes with the level of detail she once did. The new minutes will record the essential stuff, like discussion topics and votes, but will not contain significant details on those discussions.

It’s a slight change in policy that will impact few taxpayers — how many have actually sat down to read town council minutes even once in their lifetimes? — but it is troubling nonetheless.

To begin, it sends a lousy message to citizens who actually follow the actions of their government and occasionally get up the courage to stand and address their elected representatives: Yes, you’re welcome to come and talk to us, and yes we’re sort of listening, but we’re not actually writing it down.

Secondly, it reduces the historical record of a community whose past is measured in centuries. The written minutes of a meeting create a permanent archive of a town’s past. Committed to paper, reviewed and approved by those who participate in the decisions and actions of government, they become part of history. Beginning in 2019, the town of Barrington has decided to reduce its historical footprint.

Councilors say all the detail is still being captured and stored on video, but again, that puts a burden on private citizens — few of whom can afford to watch four-hour videos to find the 10 minutes they are interested in.

The new policy also sets a bad precedent for all of local government, as the practices of the town’s highest body are likely to trickle down to all town boards and commissions. It won’t be surprising to see zoning, planning, recreation or cemetery boards follow the example from up above and strip down meeting minutes to the bare essentials.

In all these critical areas, like zoning variances, land use policies, taxes and town laws, the meeting minutes are often the only record of what took place, and sometimes those discussion details are absolutely critical to full understanding of what has taken place. It’s one thing to know that the town implemented a new policy 20 years ago — like charging field fees to allow little kids to play sports. It’s another thing to know that the field fees were part of a larger discussion to channel cell tower rental revenue back into care and maintenance of athletic fields.

In other words, those detailed minutes often contain the context critical to understanding not only WHAT the town did, but often WHY.

Something is lost if the town council moves forward and records less. Taxpayers lose a little, and Barrington’s historical record loses a lot.

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Mike Rego

Mike Rego has worked at East Bay Newspapers since 2001, helping the company launch The Westport Shorelines. He soon after became a Sports Editor, spending the next 10-plus years in that role before taking over as editor of The East Providence Post in February of 2012. To contact Mike about The Post or to submit information, suggest story ideas or photo opportunities, etc. in East Providence, email mrego@eastbaymediagroup.com.