This story comes to us from our city hall reporting partner, the Austin Monitor.
Wasting no time, Austin’s newly inaugurated City Council launched into a proposal Thursday to change its meetings and committee structures. The changes, members say, will make for a more efficient, more transparent city government.
For now, the details of the change remain tentative. Council will hold a public hearing Jan. 22 to discuss the change and plan to take up the changes for a vote at the first meeting, set for Jan. 29.
“I’ve been here seven years,” said City Manager Marc Ott. “And I can’t even remember how many times things have gotten to the point of my desk or even to the Council’s agenda where we recognized they had not been fully vetted. So, in other words, we found ourselves dealing with unanswered questions about staffing impact, fiscal impact and other kinds of impacts.”
Ott said that the proposed changes would give the city “the opportunity to do that proper vetting.”
In terms of concrete changes to their meeting schedule, Council members proposed to hold more frequent meetings, move executive sessions to a separate day entirely and rotate their meeting agendas in a way that allows them to address certain things, like zoning, all at once.
They also plan to move public hearings earlier in the decision-making process, to the expanded slate of Council Committees instead of the full City Council. Council Committees would hear all proposed ordinances and resolutions before they go to the entire Council.
“I think it’s going to be important to try and pull yourselves away from the old calendars as much as you can,” said Mayor Steve Adler.
Council Member Greg Casar said that he would be working to make sure the new structure “improves civic engagement, and doesn’t just become a place where advocates’ wishes get weeded out.”
He continued: “Being someone that knew and had figured out how the system worked in order to get things passed at 2 in the morning, I personally understand that the system needs improvement, but know that there were folks like myself that got used to the old system. This is going to be a change. So, I am really going to be working to serve as sort of an ‘Advocate’s Advocate’ who can make sure that the changes that we make enhance the voices of advocates.”
Casar explained that the changes were intended to address the public sentiment that although there were public hearings in the past, public voices were not actually being heard.
As it stands now, according to a draft flowchart distributed at Thursday’s news conference, any four Council members who are in agreement may place an item directly on the main Council agenda in cases of emergency, if the committee fails to take action, “or other reasons.” In addition, according to another box on the flow chart, there will be a public hearing at the Council meeting if there was no hearing in committee.
“I think a lot of people are used to being heard before the whole City Council, so I think that is something I and my colleagues will have to work on,” said Casar, who hoped an understanding of what should appear before the whole Council would emerge as the new system becomes more familiar.
Austin Neighborhoods Council president Mary Ingle was skeptical, and concerned that the new structure would not necessarily increase public input.
“On the one hand, I think, ‘Oh, a new way of doing business? Great.’ On the other hand, I think, practically speaking, ‘How is this going to work?’” said Ingle. “I just see this as a lot more work, and I’m not sure that it is going to get better results.
“I’m also worried about the public input and how it will be evaluated,” Ingle continued. “Do loudmouth lions get the last word? Do soft-mouth lions get the last word? We all know that the public hearings were kind of a sham before, because no one was listening. … If you have to contact a Council member, that’s when you send them an email. We all know that.
“I, personally, don’t think they are going to listen anymore,” said Ingle. “It’s the behind-the-scenes stuff after a public hearing that actually makes a difference. I think they need to go into this with an open mind and be flexible, because if it doesn’t work any better, then we shouldn’t be depending on this, either.”
Unlike the current system, which allows unlimited testimony, Casar said that testimony in front of Council would be limited to take place within a certain amount of time. That, he explained, will allow for time-certain items to actually be time-certain, and give the public more information about when the item that they care about will be heard.
As for who will serve on which committee, that, too, is being worked out. Casar told the Monitor that the current proposal is that Council members will state their preferences, and then the mayor will assign members to committees. Those assignments will be proposed as resolutions, which the entire Council will have to approve.
Adler said that they expect each Council member to be the chair and vice chair of at least one committee.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo spoke to the Monitor after Thursday’s announcement. As the only returning member of the current Council, she was hopeful.
“I think it could be a very important change, and I hope it will make our deliberations more thoughtful,” said Tovo. “What I am especially keen on is the ability to have more specific information for the public about when they can provide testimony. … [As it is now], people come and they wait for hours, and [it] makes it very difficult for them to participate.”
Tovo told the Monitor they had discussed how items that were of particular import to one district or Council member would be handled.
“That is going to be a really critical thing that we are working on,” Tovo said. “Though the committee structure is four, any member of Council can attend committees, as has been the practice. … [That Council member] cannot vote, however they still have the opportunity, with the support of colleagues, to put it directly on the [Council] agenda.”
The Monitor spoke with AURA board member Eric Goff, who frequently speaks before Council. He said that, in terms of shorter meetings, the most effective thing Council could do would be to simplify the Land Development Code. As for the current proposal, he said that “right now, it needs more clarity.” Goff was especially concerned about which items are required to go before the full Council by law, and how that would be resolved.
Currently, the possible list of Council Committees stands at 13, and is more closely aligned with city department structure and the boards and commissions structure than the existing seven Council Committees.
Real Estate Council of Austin Vice President of Public Policy Heidi Gerbracht said that, though she had not conferred with all of RECA’s members, generally speaking they were pleased with the proposed changes.
“We’re hopeful about the opportunity for more chances for public input, better quality of public input and more deliberative process,” said Gerbracht. “All of us who spend time at City Hall know how painful those late-night meetings were. If there is a possible way to avoid being there at 4 in the morning, RECA would say that it is valuable for having good decision-making. Obviously no one makes good decisions at 4 in the morning.”
Proposed City Council Committees
The current proposal would divide the existing Audit and Finance committee into two separate committees. An Audit Committee could take up issues with audits, bond oversight and citizen commissions. A separate Finance Committee could also look at bonds, financial policies, employee benefits and the impact of policies on affordability.
The Health and Human Services Committee would be retained, though it could add animal welfare to its purview.
The Austin Energy Committee would also be retained, though there was no word on whether it would continue to be a committee of the whole, with all Council members serving on it.
The current proposal would also add a Public Utilities Committee that could oversee Austin Water, Austin Resource Recovery, the Drainage Utility and telecommunications regulatory issues.
Instead of the existing Comprehensive Planning and Transportation Committee, Council has proposed a Mobility Committee. That committee would keep an eye on all transportation modes. (The draft document lists roads, the airport, transit, pedestrians, bicycles, ground transportation, taxis, Lone Star rail, Texas High Speed Rail and core transit corridors.)
The planning side of things would shift to a Planning and Neighborhoods Committee whose members will focus on land use. The draft document shifts Imagine Austin, the Land Development Code, neighborhood planning, zoning, annexations, eminent domain, historic landmark review, design and noise all to this committee.
There would also be a Public Safety Committee designed to oversee criminal justice, code enforcement, fire, police, emergency services and wildfire preparedness.
There would no longer be a minority-owned and women-owned business enterprises and small business committee. That would fall under the new Economic Development Committee, which would also oversee economic incentives and public improvement districts.
The proposed Open Space, Environment and Sustainability Committee is completely new for Council and would address environmental items and sustainability items, among other things.
The current Emerging Technology and Telecommunications Committee duties will shift to the Innovation and Creative Industries Committee, at least partially. That committee will also address things like special events, tourism and the Austin Public Library.
Council has also proposed a Housing and Community Development Committee, which will address housing and community development issues.
Finally, there would be an Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, which would concern itself with legislative priorities and intergovernmental relations.
All of these committees would be in addition to existing intergovernmental bodies that have a City of Austin presence, such as CAMPO and the Capital Metro Board.
The proposal currently notes that committees could choose to work jointly in issues of overlap, and that Council may create “one or more” affordability Task Forces, as was promised on several campaign trails.