Best Practices for Taking Minutes in a Municipal Meeting

If you’ve been designated the recording secretary for your municipal organization, relax.

Anxieties about taking minutes arise from the common misunderstanding that they should be a verbatim transcript of a meeting, like the tape of a court reporter. However, the goal is not to jot down every word – a task for which all manner of anxiety would be entirely in order: You would inevitably fail. Remembering that minutes provide a snapshot of business accomplished, taking five simple steps will make you a master.

What Minutes Must Do, What Minutes Must Not Do

The freeing mantra comes straight out of Robert’s Rules of Order: “Minutes should record what is done, not what is said.” They are not a blow-by-blow account of who-said-what. Meeting minutes should provide the reader with a concise overview of exactly what business was conducted during the course of a meeting. In an objective voice, it should answer questions such as: Who attended? What motions were made? How did the votes turn out? What actions were taken?

Minute-takers should not get bogged down in too much detail. They should get specific about the content of discussions only if deliberations are extensive, and then only to summarize the positions taken. The difference is apparent in the following example:

MINUTES SHOULD READ:

“Proponents pointed to the discounts that the plan provided and the administrative ease of implementation. Opponents stressed the lengthy onboarding period.”

NOT

“But it would save us so much money!”

NOT EVEN

“Town Manager Gerald Finney spoke extensively about the importance of making his administrative duties lighter, recounting three nights in the previous month that he had stayed at the office until midnight.”

You can see how the first summary would actually serve you far better if you yourself had not attended the meeting and just needed to know what happened and why it was significant for moving an issue along. It is written from a third-person point of view, like a newspaper article. It provides an overview of the points made.

By remembering that minutes record what is done, not what is said, you will create what is known as an action agenda. It provides a summary. For keeping track of the business of the council, it is far more useful than a verbatim transcript would be; it achieves something more ambitious than a blow-by-blow account of neighborly squabbles: It succinctly tracks where each action item is in its life cycle – from (1) motion to (2) discussion to (3) tabling, dismissal or referral to committee to (4) possibly more discussion to (5) final vote.

This summary really is more useful than a complete transcript. Imagine you’re the Chair, compiling a future agenda based on unfinished business from past meetings. The minutes are the first place you would turn. You need to see what business from before is not yet completed. A five-page account of every neighbor’s grievance over this or that policy that comes before the body would not help you.

Steps

With that purpose in mind, you should see that your job is entirely manageable. Taking the process through these five simple steps will make it a piece of cake: pre-meeting planning, taking notes during the meeting, creating minutes from the notes, distributing the minutes and filing the minutes.

  1. Pre-Meeting Planning.

Read the agenda as soon as it is distributed – often a week before the meeting. If anything about it is confusing to you, ask the chairperson then for clarification. You should walk into the meeting with clear expectations.

  1. Taking Notes During the Meeting.

With one simple move at the start of the meeting, you’ll achieve astonishing alacrity with less anxiety: Use the agenda as the outline for your minutes. If there’s enough room, write directly on the agenda. If not, use the same structure and language to identify headings for each part of your notes on separate paper.

Paralleling the agenda, your minutes will then have three sections, each with its own requirements:

  1. Opening. Details that most attendees can gloss over require careful attention when you’re taking minutes. Remember that you’re keeping a legal record of the meeting. Keep an accurate account of:
  1. Body (Old Business and New Business)

As the meeting moves from the opening to the main business, you can shift gears from “recording every tedious detail” to “not sweating the small stuff.” You had to notice more than most people in the opening; now you need to notice less. You must keep an eye on the skeletal outline and not get distracted by any catfights along the way.

Make clear notations to indicate whether each item starts at the stage of a motion, a discussion or a vote – as well as whether it advances to the next stage in the course of the meeting (or gets tabled or dismissed). Write the name of each person who makes or seconds a motion, and take names to create a record of how each member voted. Initials work well if there is no duplication.

  1. Closing

Note the time that the meeting was adjourned. Also write down the place and time of the next meeting.

  1. Creating the Minutes From the Notes.

It’s a good idea to create the minutes soon after the meeting, as your memory will fade and abbreviations in your notes may lose their meaning to you. These minutes from a recent meeting in Algoma, Wisconsin, set a good example for tone and level of detail.

  1. Opening: Remarks included:

“The April 17, 2018, organizational meeting of the Algoma Common Council was called to order by Mayor Schmidt at 7:00 p.m. in the Council Chamber.”

“Present at the roll call: Alders Charles, Cleveland, Groessl, Meverden, Schmidt and Wiese. Absent at roll call: Alders Dachelet and Maring.”

  1. Body: Business items included --

“Mayor Schmidt accepted nominations for the office of City Attorney. Wiese moved, seconded by Charles, to nominate Attorneys James A. Downey and Jacob M. Blazkovec of the Algoma law firm of Blazkovec, Blazkovec & Downey to serve as City Attorneys. No other nominations were put forward to serve as City Attorney. The Mayor called the question, and the motion carried unanimously.”

  1. Closing

“A motion was made to adjourn at 7:22 p.m. by Alder Chales and seconded by Alder Wiese. The motion carried, and the council stood adjourned until Monday, May 7, 2018, at 7:00 p.m. at City Hall.”

Some secretaries add a section after the closing, providing a summary of work assigned to individual board members to accomplish before the next meeting, with deadlines included.

  1. Distributing the Minutes.

You should consult your local statutes to see how soon after the meeting you are required to distribute the minutes – to both members and the public. Build in a couple of days before that deadline to get them approved by the Chair. Remember that you will also provide (for the record) copies of all of the documents that accompanied the meeting, including the version of the minutes of the last meeting that was finally approved.

At this stage, you need a board portal with robust encryption (256-, not 128-bit) and role-based authorizations. With it, you can:

  1. Post all of these materials on a public-facing site (to satisfy open meeting laws)

b. Not dangle bait before hackers, who love local governments more than we once knew. Just ask Atlanta. Or Dallas. Or Kiev. Each spent millions of dollars cleaning up after cyberattacks. Note: File-sharing sites do not provide adequate cybersecurity: all store data on the public cloud, not a private cloud, and some provide less than 256-bit encryption.Email is even worse: If you attached the minutes as an email attachment to members, hackers could not only see your document but alsouse the attachment as a gateway to all of the data stored in the network with whicheach email address is affiliated.

c. Protect confidential versions of documents that are meant only for certain committee members or executives. With role-based authorization, different users actually see different versions of the same document when they log in: The public will get a scrubbed version without sensitive information, while decision-makers with theproper clearance will get fuller text.

  1. Save time, money and trees by not mailing hard copies like your grandfather did.

Some organizations are now taking video footage of their meetings. You can post the footage alongside the minutes on a multimedia portal. It’s as easy as dragging and dropping.

  1. Filing or storing the minutes.

Following the next meeting, you will have an approved version of the minutes. There may be changes made. Make any changes and move the minutes (with attachments) into an archive on the portal. You will be creating a virtual filing cabinet that is invaluable for future reference. The portal provider should provide free unlimited storage; never pay money to add more material. With a good portal, you can move any video footage of the meeting into the archive as well.

If you take these five steps, you will create a concise, accurate, thorough record of meetings. Remember that you are creating a legal public record, not a diary or a transcript. Future readers will thank you.

Source: “Less is More: Action Minutes Serve Cities Best,” MRSC March 1, 2012 by Ann G. Macfarlane


Speak with
a Human

Want to talk to a person who can answer your questions?

Just get in touch with us by phone. Or, if you prefer email, use our web form.

800-407-0141 or Contact Us Online