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A trio of changes to procedures related to Mountain Home city government is coming next year, City Clerk Scott Liles has announced.
Starting January 1, 2024, the city will process its bid waivers by resolution instead of by ordinance, meeting packets for City Council meetings are expected to be released one week prior to the scheduled meeting dates and the City Clerk’s office will begin an official policy of electronic preservation of documents, beginning with the Exhibit Files collected at Council meetings.
“I’m excited for the New Year and seeing these changes go into place,” Liles said. “We’ve already taken small steps towards all three changes, but things will become official on Jan. 1. I think the public will be happy with the adjustments we’re making.”
Beginning in 2024, the City will use resolutions when it needs to waive its established bidding procedures and purchase exclusive or hard-to-find equipment. The city currently requires purchases that exceed $20,000 to be put out to bid unless the Council grants a bid waiver for a particular purchase on the grounds that such bidding isn’t feasible or practical. Common reasons for bid waivers include an item’s scarcity in the marketplace or if a vendor is the sole source of a proprietary piece of equipment.
Previously, the Council used ordinances to adopt such bid waivers. Ordinances must be read three times before they can be adopted, and the Council must then hold another vote to declare an emergency and enact the ordinance immediately. Resolutions simply require a single vote for adoption and are effective immediately upon passage.
“From the public’s perspective, this makes bid waivers much easier to track and understand,” Liles said. “The city is saying, ‘We want to buy some widgets,’ and then holding a vote whether to do so. Under an ordinance, you would read a bid waiver, then vote to read the item a second time, then vote to read the waiver a third time, then vote to adopt the ordinance and then vote on the emergency clause. You would have four votes for every bid waiver request.”
Arkansas Code 14-58-303, which addresses municipal bid waivers, states that city councils may, by resolution, waive its competitive bidding requirements. Liles said research showed that the City of Mountain Home has used ordinances for its bid waivers dating back more than 30 years.
“The city wasn’t doing anything wrong per se using ordinances for bid waivers, but an ordinance is the wrong tool for this job,” he said. “Ordinances are for things of a permanent or persistent nature. They continue as approved until the Council votes to make a change. You would use them to adopt something like a building code, billboard regulations or to set your city park’s hours of operation. Resolutions are temporary and address one thing at a particular time. If we adopt a bid waiver to purchase six police cars for a certain amount, we are buying those six vehicles at that price at that one time. We are not saying we are going to keep buying those six cars at that price for perpetuity.”
Also beginning in January, Liles said that the meeting packet for City Council meetings will be released to the public one week prior to the actual meeting time. The Mountain Home City Council meets on the first and third Thursdays of each month, meaning the packets will be released on the Thursday prior to the following week’s meeting.
The City’s current practice is to release the meeting packet — which contains the agenda, copies of any ordinances or resolutions to be discussed that night and other supporting documents — on the Tuesday afternoon leading up to that Thursday night’s meeting.
“Both the Arkansas Municipal League and the Arkansas City Clerks, Records and Treasurers Association recommend that cities release their meeting packets either a week prior to their meetings or at least the weekend before a meeting,” Liles said. “Since the Mountain Home City Council meets on Thursday nights, that’s pretty much the same thing for us, either way.”
Having the packets out a week in advance gives both Council members and the public time to seek out additional input on a meeting’s proposed items, Liles said.
“When you release packets a week prior to the meeting, you are giving people additional time to read through things and ask questions,” he said. “You can talk to your neighbors about it over the weekend or visit with people after church Sunday. The feedback from Council members regarding getting the packets out earlier was overwhelmingly positive. I think everyone will be happier with having more time with the meeting materials.”
In November, the City Council approved an ordinance outlining the electronic preservation of Exhibit Files from Council meetings. That policy will also go into effect on Jan. 1, 2024.
Under state law, city clerks must keep a meeting’s Exhibit Files – a collection of documents that includes a complete meeting packet plus any notes, records and other materials generated from that meeting – on file. Those files can then be used to double-check the official minutes from that meeting should it be required. City clerks also use Exhibit Files to find documents that might not otherwise be included in the minutes, like a complete copy of an old contract or a proposed budget from years ago.
The City of Mountain Home’s current practice with Exhibit Files is to gather all the items in their printed form and keep them in a manilla envelope with the event and date marked on the envelope’s exterior.
Under the new policy adopted in November, Liles will begin scanning his notes and other printed meeting materials and preserving that whole package as an electronic document maintained on the City’s servers.
“We’ve got hard copies of Exhibit Files that date back decades,” Liles said. “The more recent ones are kept in my office, with older ones getting boxed up and placed in storage. Keeping everything electronically cuts down on the storage clutter, plus it’s a safeguard against the documents being damaged by a water leak or a fire.”
The electronic Exhibit Files will continue to remain open to the public, just as the older, hardcopy Exhibit Files are.
Liles said he hoped his work with the electronic Exhibit Files was the first official step towards future preservation of most documents handled by the City Clerk’s office, like ordinances, resolutions and Council minutes.
“Since I’ve took office, we basically have three copies of every document – the official bound copy of the document preserved in book form, loose-leaf copies of each document that can be photocopied or used as a handout if needed, and an electronic scan of the document that we can use to print additional copies or send out in an email,” Liles said. “Right now, we’re straddling the divide between paper files and electronic records. I don’t think we’ll ever completely move away from printed records – state law requires us to keep a printed, bound copy of a lot of records – but electronic records are eventually going to become the de facto currency for all city clerks.”
Since taking office, Liles has also been working to back-catalog the older documents in his office so eventually a complete electronic record is available to the public.
Liles said one of his goals for the coming year was to complete that archiving process and then consolidate all the preserved electronic records into a single database that is searchable by keyword. A collection of electronic records would not be much help without a way to quickly search through them all, he noted.
“Mountain Home was incorporated in 1886, so there’s 137 years’ worth of documents to keep track of,” he said. “Recent documents are easy to find and access but searching for items from 25 or 50 years ago often turns into a scavenger hunt. Being able to quickly search every document by the words on the page itself will help cut down on the time spent going through some of those old records.”