Methuen City Council mulls digitizing records dating back decades

City Councilor Eunice Zeigler

METHUEN — The City Council is mulling the possibility of digitizing decades' worth of its own records, making it easier for residents and local officials to review actions taken by previous councils.

Councilor Eunice Zeigler proposed the resolution, which would "establish an online digital library for legislation adopted by the City Council."

"It would make it accessible to us as legislators but also to the general public so they know what we are doing to represent them and what type of legislation we are putting forth to enhance the quality of life in Methuen," she told councilors at the April 20 meeting.

It could also prevent the council from passing legislation that has already been passed by previous councils or to pass a resolution that might conflict with a prior bill, Zeigler noted.

The council unanimously approved the proposal on the first read and councilors approved it again during a second reading at Monday's meeting.

"The council is on board with the resolution," she said Monday, noting that "since the inception of City Council, our resolutions have not been made available to the public. If you want to find a resolution passed just five years ago, you have to put in a request, then (council Clerk Linda Gagnon) has to find it in binders. It's a laborious task. This is way more efficient."

The council voted 9-0 in favor of the resolution on Monday night.

Council Chairman Steve Saba questioned whether the initiative might bog down Gagnon, who is already overworked and in need of at least a part-time assistant. He noted it would take hours to scan the documents.

"I like this, but we have 5,600 resolutions adopted since 1971," he said. "If we move forward on this, we have to have a discussion about bringing an assistant to the clerk, or an intern. We can't put this kind of pressure on our clerk."

Zeigler said the proposal actually highlights a problem that has existed in the City Council office for years — understaffing. Gagnon is the only staff person for the council, requiring her to cover numerous meetings, file minutes, and keep an orderly flow of information among councilors, the mayor's office and other city departments.

Saba recently said that the council's budget this year may include additional funding for a clerk to help Gagnon.

Councilor Jessica Finocchiaro questioned the resolution for another reason, noting that the city already has a program called E-360, which allows residents or city officials to search the city's database for ordinances, bylaws, zoning regulations and the City Charter.

She recommended putting council resolutions into that database instead of creating a separate system.

Zeigler, however, noted that the council should have a separate database.

"This will revolutionize the way the council does business," she said. "It's a valuable tool for councilors and for the public. It's important because it's the crux of the work we are doing for the town."

Methuen has had an elected council since 1973, when there were 21 members of the town council. In 1978, that changed to just nine members. In 1993, voters chose to convert the town into a city, creating the current setup of nine City Councilors and a mayor.

The city council has electronic records starting in 2018, making the job of putting them on a searchable database relatively easy.

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