E-Records Forum 2013: Meeting Challenges of the Texas Open Meetings Act

This is the seventh and final post of a multi-part recap of the 2013 NAGARA E-Records Forum. Presentations from the E-Records Forum are available on the NAGARA website.

As a government employee, I am familiar with the Texas Open Meetings Act (TOMA). However my job responsibilities do not require me to be directly involved with complying with the Act. So it was great to obtain a glimpse into how one local government brings compliance into practice.

Two records managers in the City of Austin’s Office of the City Clerk, Jannette Goodall, CRM (City Clerk) and Bob Guz, CRM (Analyst) shared some of the challenges Austin encounters with TOMA compliance. They also provided information on how they’ve streamlined processes and behaviors to make that compliance easier and information more easily accessed by their citizens.

The City’s Problem

Like other large municipalities and other governments in Texas, the City of Austin’s size* creates a challenge for compliance. For example, here are some statistics from 2012 (stats include City Council and other Boards and Commissions):

  • Meetings posted: 111
  • Meetings held: 99
  • Agendas posted for Boards/Commissions: 1,366
  • Typical agenda length: 30 pages
  • Typical number of items on agenda: 90
  • Most council meetings held in one month: 16
  • Total documents posted to the web: 13,377
  • Most number of individuals providing public comments for a single agenda item: 500 [five zero zero. Five hundred.]

In addition to “regular” city administration, Austin also has police, fire, EMS, public utilities, and an international airport.

Challenges in complying with TOMA

The volume of information to manage, coupled with inconsistencies in practice, led to certain difficulties meeting TOMA posting requirements.

  • Multiple posting times — sometimes the City Clerk would have to post an agenda at 9:00 on Friday night, sometimes on a Saturday
  • Confusion over when and how to post a meeting
  • Meetings not being posted
  • Inconsistent practices for posting the meeting notices to the Web
  • Inconsistent records management practices
  • Inconsistent file naming conventions
  • Large volume of agendas and related documents
  • Multiple delivery methods for supporting documents: some emailed, some scanned, some printed (then scanned again!)
  • Multiple posting locations: physical bulletin board, City website, and City Connection Calendar
  • Agendas posted for 22 other organizations that the City had no legal requirement to post

The City’s Solutions

Because of the volume of agenda items and complexities of posting, they streamline wherever they can. To that end, they identified two key goals: eliminate paper wherever possible, and establish procedures for consistent records retention practices.

Goal 1: Eliminate paper wherever possible

They were able to utilize their enterprise document and imaging management system (EDIMS) to manage meeting documents and related documentation. When they started, their holdings were 80% paper, 20% electronic; now it is the opposite (this means they now do a lot less scanning than they used to).

They have about 1.5 million documents in this repository going back to the late 1860s — they have worked with the Austin History Center to scan historic ordinances, minutes, and so forth.

On Mr. Guz’s suggestion, the City created a public web portal, their “Council Meeting Information Center,” that gives citizens a portal through which they can access information about city meetings. The Center’s features include:

  • Posting locations for all Council agendas
  • Access to details of each Council meeting
  • Content search: supports keyword searching
  • Provides a one-stop source for meeting records
  • Supports the Council’s goals to increase transparency

The Council Meeting Information Center is an easy-to-use, one-stop shop for finding all available information about a City Council (or board/commission) meeting.

Council Meeting Information Center home page, the citizen’s entry to the online meeting portal. Features quick links to upcoming and recent meetings. Links take the user to all available information for a given meeting.

This is the screen a user would see for a single meeting — this image is a screenshot of the May 9, 2013 meeting. The meeting’s individual page also features the archived video recording of the meeting. At the bottom you can see a clickable list of agenda items — all 83 of them.

Each agenda item is accompanied by the supporting documentation and any action related to that item, such as an executed resolution.

Computer kiosks with access to the Center are now located in the lobby of City Hall. These stations replaced the copper bulletin boards** that were previously used for posting paper notices and agendas.

Kiosk in City Hall

Although the copper bulletin boards were pretty, the stations provide better access to all meeting materials (not to mention, a lovely view of downtown Austin — those bulletin boards blocked an enormous window).

Draft agendas, changes and corrections, addenda, Council Q&A, and supporting documents are available through an externally-hosted agenda management system called SIRE.

In SIRE, each agenda item is presented as a link. When the user clicks on the agenda item link in the left frame, s/he can view and download any supporting documentation for that item by clicking on that item’s icon in the right frame.

Goal 2: Establish procedures and maintain consistent records retention practices

Jannette recognized a need to establish procedures to ensure consistent records retention compliance. As documents are uploaded into the system from various departments, they are auto-classified according to the City’s records control schedule. Jannette established consistent naming conventions to ensure proper auto-classification in the system.

Since 2010, the City Clerk is custodian of all meeting records. This system eliminated the need for individual departments to fulfill Public Information Requests (PIRs). Approximately 200,000 documents per month are downloaded from the system through the Center — documents that, in the past, would have had to be sent to the public through PIRs. The ease of finding information online not only reduces the City’s PIR workload, it probably connects citizens to information that they might not have otherwise known about or bothered to request.

Additionally, Jannette established set posting times. Meeting agendas can only be posted at 10:00 AM and 3:00 PM — no more late Friday night agenda postings! Agendas and other documents must be posted into the system. Templates have been created for staff to follow to ensure consistency.

These initiatives by the City of Austin demonstrate how sound records management principles can positively impact and improve a number of business practices.

RIP, copper bulletin board!

*If this is what Austin deals with in one year, I can only imagine what larger governments around the state are dealing with.

**I never asked what happened to the copper bulletin boards. I wonder if I can find those at surplus.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.