The Baldwin County Commission’s Nov. 26 work session was the first in a decade held without the presence of a certified court reporter. Last week, President Billie Jo Underwood told Lagniappe, court reporter Susan Andrews requested to terminate her contract effective Nov. 21, and at the time, the commission was still discussing how to document public meetings going forward.
Upon Andrews’ request for termination late last month, the commission sent a request for quotation (RFQ) for a new contract to several court-reporting agencies and certified individuals, but did not receive a single response. In the three-year contract she last renewed in 2017, Andrews received a per diem rate of $106.25 per meeting attended and $3.62 per full page of transcript created. The funds were paid from the budget of whichever department she was reporting on.
“I heard court reporters can get $15 per page for some work, so I don’t know if our contract is worth it for them,” Underwood said.
The commission considered two options at Tuesday’s work session, although the results of the discussion were not finalized by the time this report was published and will not be adopted until a regular meeting in December.
The first option would create a staff position in the administration for a professional court reporter, with a salary to be decided. If chosen, the commission would need to budget the funds for the annual salary plus benefits before advertising the open position.
The second option would be for existing staff to take general minutes — not verbatim minutes — off all meetings according to and in some cases exceeding the requirements of Alabama’s Open Records Act, but “detailed discussions will not be transcribed.”
In lieu of verbatim minutes, video or audio recordings will be made of all commission work sessions, special called or emergency special called meetings, budget deliberation meetings, meetings of the Road and Bridge Division, meetings of the Industrial and Civic Division and meetings of the Planning and Zoning Commission. Only the regular meetings of the county and the planning commissions will continue to be live-streamed on the county commission’s Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the proposal does not include language for videotaping or audiotaping the four Boards of Adjustment or MPO Policy Board and committees, while meetings of the Personnel Board may be audio-recorded “if necessary,” such as in a grievance hearing.
Underwood said the commission previously discussed the possibility of live-streaming more meetings, but the logistics of holding work sessions in four different locations with varying seating arrangements make it technically difficult. She said at least one commissioner favors the staff court reporter option, but she supports the alternative.
“I’m not really a fan of growing government,” she said, adding that depending on the amount of work, a full-time court reporter could be “a huge expense to taxpayers.”
Andrews first entered into a contract with the county in February 2008, at a time when the county administrator estimated the commission spent about $82,000 for court reporting services. Alternately, Andrews was paid $40,218.33 for court reporting services between Nov. 1, 2018 and Oct. 1, 2019, according to the county’s financial records.
“There is no effort to not be transparent,” Underwood said. “If anyone needs a video immediately, [the IT department] told me it can be ready in a few hours.”
Completing her first year in office, Underwood said she has often been frustrated by the length of time it takes to have transcripts delivered after a meeting.
“I understand the verbatim minutes can be helpful, but when we just don’t get them back for weeks or a month … we passed the budget this year before we had the minutes back from the budget discussions,” she said. As of Nov. 22, there were no minutes available on the county’s website from the nine public meetings held so far during the month, although three were available on video. Minutes from five of 10 meetings held in October were available Friday, while four of the 10 were videotaped. Only seven of 15 meetings held in September had written minutes available Friday, while three were videotaped. In some cases, the minutes had yet to be approved, so they could not be published.
Andrews’ contract with the county commission, as transparent as it made public meetings, is an anomaly among municipalities in the county. While all follow the provisions of the Open Meetings Act regarding meeting notifications and the keeping of minutes, some go beyond the requirements.
Fairhope videotapes and live-streams nearly all of its public meetings on YouTube, but only summarizes written minutes. Its agendas and minutes are available online. Magnolia Springs and Orange Beach have audio recordings of meetings available on their websites, along with agendas and summarized minutes.
Daphne, Spanish Fort, Foley and Gulf Shores summarize meeting minutes and post them along with agendas online, but do not videotape, audiotape or live-stream.
Spanish Fort does not post agendas or minutes online, nor does it record meetings on tape, but it infrequently posts agendas on Facebook.
Even the Alabama Board of Court Reporting, the regulatory agency for the state created in 2006, does not keep verbatim minutes of its own quarterly public meetings. There are only about 400 licensed court reporters in the state, according to Executive Director Paula McCaleb, and the educational component required prior to certification is only offered at two schools: Auburn University and Gadsden State Community College. The Prince Institute, a private stenograph school that once offered a program in Mobile, closed in 2017.
In an email to the county commission Oct. 22, Andrews did not provide an explanation for requesting the termination of her contract. She didn’t respond to a request for comment from Lagniappe.
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