Council looks for efficient ways to keep public informed on issues

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 24

Council’s staff spends about 30 hours each week typing up transcripts to council meetings – many of them never to be touched again by human hands.

The council members who will take office in two weeks consider that a waste of time, and will soon begin considering alternative ways to keep the public informed.

“It’s a question of efficiency,” said Councilman Peter Ujvagi. “We’re still doing what we were doing in 1950.”

By the beginning of this month, 2,036 pages of council transcripts had been published by the clerk’s office during 1997 at a cost of about 1,400 man-hours.

Deputy clerk Sue Duckworth said her office gets about two requests to examine the transcripts every day, or about 500 a year.

With a staff of only six people, devoting nearly all the time of an employee to transcribing takes away from the time staff could be spent on legislative issues, Mr. Ujvagi said.

“We have to make sure that the public and the press have access to the information they need, but we also need to make sure we’re using our staff as efficiently as we can,” the councilman said.

The new council will look at several different options to potentially replace transcribing, including voice recognition technology, he said.

In addition, Ms. Duckworth said, the city might look into contracting transcription out to a private firm to free up the city’s staff.

In addition, it would have the option of simply making tape recordings of the meetings available to the public – something the clerk’s office already does.

Public interest in the transcripts often soar when a particularly contentious issue – like the proposed Home Depot on Secor Road – comes before council.

“For Home Depot, we have people coming in one right after another,” she said. “For issues that are detailed, people come in to find out those details.”

Council members and Law Department officials use the transcripts regularly, she said.

“We have significant traffic. It’s a question of whether or not we have the staff to do it.”

In Columbus – whose city council Toledo’s is hoping to model itself after – the clerk’s office makes tapes of all meetings available to the public, but makes transcripts only when they are requested by city officials.

During an average year, that happens four or five times.

“We just don’t have the demand that Toledo does,” said Angie Blevins, deputy clerk of Columbus’s council.

Tape recordings of the meetings are requested three or four times a month, Ms. Blevins said.

Columbus uses a simple tape recorder like Toledo’s, but a clerk’s office staffer creates an index during each meeting, marking when on the tape each issue is addressed.

Someone asking for the tape later can then be told how far in that issue is discussed.

Ms. Blevins said Columbus has never transcribed meetings and that doing so would require lots of staff time.

“When I was thinking of the time it would take, especially not having as much of a staff [in Toledo as in Columbus], I knew that would be a real job.”

Mr. Ujvagi said he plans for council to reach a decision on the matter within 90 days after the new members take office.