For the last year and a half, Gulfport resident Margarete Tober has been fighting to change one sentence of a city council meeting’s official minutes.
In preparing for the October 1, 2019 Gulfport City Council meeting, where the council was to do a once-per-decade review of the city charter, Tober noticed that one section appeared to say something different than what she had been told by a city official. She explained that a year or two prior, when she asked why the city didn’t foreclose on abandoned, dilapidated, liened properties, citing “about half a million dollars in past-due receivables for water bills and code enforcement bills” facing the city, she was told that the city would have to take such requests to a referendum vote and that could become costly.
“I have been told in the past by a city official, if you buy the property or if you foreclose on it, that you would have to have a referendum to sell it,” Tober said, adding that when she read city charter section 103, it appeared to state that “the only thing you have to have a referendum on is to sell park lands, submergible lands, and so forth,” she said.
Tober asked City Attorney Andrew Salzman for clarification, and he later responded, “If real property is being used for almost any purpose by the city, you have to do it by referendum,” before adding that the city is also reluctant to buy or foreclose on derelict property because of the responsibility that comes with maintaining and repairing it.
Salzman later clarified his initial point, reading from the charter directly.
“The charter speaks as to the use of the property that has to be sold by referendum… so if it’s used for park, beach, recreational, beach access, submerged lands, if it’s used for administrative support facilities, it has to go by referendum,” a clarification that means that while the city may not want to foreclose on derelict houses, nothing in the charter prevents them from doing so.
Two weeks later, Tober read the official minutes of the meeting, and a single sentence caught her eye.
“City Attorney Salzman explained if real property is being used for any purpose by the City it has to be sold by referendum and read the specifics of Section 103,” it read.
Salzman had not said “any purpose” but rather “almost any purpose” and later explained various exceptions to this rule.
A minor discrepancy in wording, but a significant error in context. Tober sought to have it corrected at the following council meeting, but council refused.
“Mayor Henderson stated that he had spoken with the city clerk prior to the meeting and concluded that the minutes don’t need to be verbatim and the public can watch the meeting video and discern the truth,” Tober wrote in an email to the Gabber. “It saddens me greatly that council thinks this error is not worthy of correction.”
Mayor Henderson also stated that he didn’t want to get into the “habit of changing the minutes.” At the council meeting on November 5, 2019, then-Councilmember Dan Liedtke asked Salzman if the minutes of October 1 were correct; Salzman said that they were not. On November 19, Salzman volunteered the same information again.
The Gabber spoke with City Clerk Lesley Demuth, who handles the meeting minutes. She responded that the council reviewed the minutes and approved them, and that if they felt that a change was necessary, they would have noted it.
Henderson, in a separate interview with the Gabber, agreed, saying, “Ms. Tober has requested a change numerous times based on her perception of an error in context … I disagree with her position. No one on council, to date, has asked to alter the minutes and I do not want to set a precedent for ongoing editorializing of minutes based on personal subjective bias or someone’s desire to prove a point.”
Henderson also added, “Meeting minutes are not a verbatim record of a council meeting, nor are they intended to be. We have archived video of council meetings for anyone looking for those absolutes.”
While this is true, historically, the meeting’s minutes will remain as the only permanent record of the meeting. By law the video recording only has to be archived for two years, a deadline which, five months into 2021, is rapidly approaching.