Rochester council recording practice based on location, intent of meetings

Two council sessions have not been recorded in recent months to allow more casual discussion, with concern raised by one member.

Study session.jpg
Members of the Rochester City Council and staff speak during the recorded study session Monday, March 13, 2023, in the Rochester Public Utilities community room. An earlier session to address council members' personal strengths and interaction was held using circled tables and was not recorded.
Randy Petersen/Post Bulletin

ROCHESTER — A recent Rochester City Council study session to review strategic priorities for the city spurred concern about when such meetings are recorded.

“We have made it impossible for some residents to get this information,” council member Molly Dennis said during the Feb. 27 meeting held at the city-owned Plummer House.

She raised similar concerns Monday, when a learning session to discuss of council members’ personal strengths was not recorded. The session was held in the Rochester Public Utilities community room.

Rochester City Administrator Alison Zelms said the two meetings were not recorded since they were not working council meetings and no formal city business conducted.

“We were trying to have a very different setting in order to have a dialogue,” she said of the two meetings.


Dennis later acknowledged that the learning session was a special meeting that didn't need to be recorded but continued to question the lack of a recording for the Feb. 27 meeting.

"We can't just light-heartedly change the definition of a meeting, if we don't want it recorded," she said. "That can happen if we define anything as a retreat, and I think that's dangerous."

Mayor Kim Norton objected to framing the lack of a recording as "dangerous," saying it implied that something was being hidden.

"I just ask that you please not use that kind of language that is inflammatory toward the council and the body about the work we are doing," she said.

Council member Shaun Palmer said the Plummer House session was conducted without official votes or other procedures that would have made it a formal meeting, but open-meeting laws were observed.

"I, for one, know the Feb. 27 meeting did not need to be recorded," Palmer said, pointing out that no votes were taken and many procedures of a formal meeting did not occur.

While meetings are not required to be recorded under open-meeting laws, the council has recorded regular meetings for years, later adding the weekly study sessions, which are used to dive more deeply into specific programs and potential policy changes before they are taken to a regular meeting for final review and a vote.

In 2019, the council adopted a resolution requiring that all official council and committee meetings be recorded, streamed online and archived.


However, the council opted to modify the requirement earlier this year to prioritize the internet video stream. The ordinance change also acknowledged the inability to record some meetings, such as tours, when they are held in unusual locations.

Specifically, the ordinance states: “Exceptions to recording may occur for experiential study sessions and or learning sessions (for example: tours), they will remain open to the public, and be recorded if possible.”

Zelms said the nature of learning sessions, which can be conducted in ways that makes recording at the same level of a typical council meeting difficult.

The Rochester Park Board holds its December meetings in the Plummer House each year, and they are recorded, but the meetings are conducted around a table.

The council held its Feb. 27 meeting while sitting in a circle of chairs, with ideas shared at the front of the room.

Deputy City Administrator Aaron Parrish said the strategic priority review was intended to help staff understand what the council sees as key issues and goals, rather than adopt specific policies. He said the work would help determine future policies or programs that could be presented to the council.

An official council vote on any potential changes to strategic priorities will be held at a future council meeting.

Dennis said she recorded the Feb. 27 meeting at the request of a constituent but used an old phone that is not connected to her account, which limited the ability to share the recording.


The difference between a learning session and study session was highlighted Monday, when the council met in the RPU community room.

The initial meeting, a learning session for council members to share insights related to personal strengths, was facilitated by an outside moderator with council members sitting at tables in a U shape, while the study session was held as a more-traditional meeting with the council members arranged in a single row.

The change in format created a more camera-friendly format for the recording of a discussion on the council's code of conduct.

Palmer said during the study session that he would like to see the City Council return to holding its weekly study sessions in room 104 of City Hall, where council members once sat around a conference table to discuss issues.

While several city boards and commissions routinely use the space, their meetings are recorded and posted online the next day.

The council's previous practice of using the conference room changed in 2019 to make sure the meetings were streamed online for live viewing.

Randy Petersen joined the Post Bulletin in 2014 and became the local government reporter in 2017. An Elkton native, he's worked for a variety of Midwest papers as reporter, photographer and editor since graduating from Winona State University in 1996. Readers can reach Randy at 507-285-7709 or
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