Sleep Research Supports Putting Austin City Council's Late Nights To Bed

Apr 20, 2017

Early on June 24, 2016, Austin City Council Member Delia Garza checked her watch.

“We’re making a decision about $720 million at 1:35 in the morning after lengthy discussions,” Garza told her colleagues. “After, in my opinion, no real agreement on this.”  

Despite the council member’s misgivings, members voted to approve the $720 million transportation bond – plus several late-night amendments to the package. The vote took place at 1:36 a.m., after council members had been at the dais for nearly 16 hours. Four months later, voters would go on to approve one of the city’s largest bond package proposals.

Now, council members are considering new rules to make their meetings more efficient, including prohibiting themselves from taking up new items later than 10 p.m. Since the 10-1 council system has been in place, nearly one-fifth of all regular council meetings have gone on past midnight.

When Mayor Steve Adler took office in 2015, one of his promises was to do away with late-night meetings.

Way Past Your Bedtime

Sleep researchers are in his corner.

“If you get up at 8 o’clock in the morning and you’re staying up past a typical sleep time, you’re going to decline in cognitive functioning,” said David Schnyer, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Texas at Austin.

Credit Andrew Weber / KUT

It’s an issue of prolonged wakefulness, he said.

In a study done by Washington State University researchers, 13 people went without sleep for more than two days. The researchers then assigned “go” (respond) and “no go” (don't respond) designations to numbers. When they showed the numbers to the participants, they were expected to respond accordingly. Once both sleep-deprived and well-rested people got the hang of it, the researchers switched up the numbers and commands. Those who had gone without sleep, had nearly a zero success rate.

Schnyer said in addition to decision-making, a lack of sleep can also affect long-term memory.

“We’ve all had that experience when you’re really tired, you just can’t remember somebody’s name or can’t remember a specific thing about an event,” he said.

In some cases, city leaders have acknowledged the negative effects of voting late.

During the first vote on the transportation bond in June, then-Council Member Sheri Gallo brought forward an amendment to divide money set aside as part of the city’s Safe Routes to School Program evenly among districts – instead of divvying up the money based on district need. Council Member Ora Houston voted to support the measure, but later regretted her decision, since it redirected more than $4 million away from her East Austin district.

Houston told the Austin Monitor fatigue was partly to blame.

Council Member Greg Casar also said he regretted how he acted during that late-night meeting. “I realize how edgy I was getting by the end of the night,” he said at a council work session in August.

Emotions become harder to control when you've been up for hours, said Schnyer.

“You decline in emotional regulation, too,” he said. “You may blow your top more readily at 2 in the morning than you would at, say, 3 in the afternoon.”

Late-night council meetings also have an effect on those who want to testify.

“Late night council meetings are tough,” said Carmen Llanes Pulido, community director for Go Austin, Vamos Austin. The group organizes residents of Southeast Austin, one of the city’s largest Hispanic districts, to testify at council on issues affecting them.

Llanes Pulido has wondered if council members are able to fully listen late at night.

“A human being’s ability to listen diminishes not only in the late hours of the night," she said, "but after a certain number of hours at any time of day of taking input."

Despite this, the community organizer said she has seen benefits of the council keeping odd hours.

“I do remember that one of those late nights that we had residents testifying, one of the residents was one of those people who works odd hours and works two or three jobs at a time," said Llanes Pulido. "And actually was able to stay late and give testimony.”

Just Chug Caffeine

Most council members are ingesting caffeine, so it’s fine, right? (Fun fact: Mayor Adler does not drink coffee).

Not necessarily so, said Pat Carter, UT professor of nursing.

“Coffee can only do so much,” she said.

Credit Andrew Weber / KUT

While to those who drink it, it may feel like caffeine reverses the negative effects of sleep deprivation – such as an inability to focus – that may be because we expect that of the stimulant.

In a 2010 study, 15 military pilot students were deprived of sleep for 37 hours before undergoing some tests with a flight simulator. While those who had been given caffeine showed a similar decline in vigilance as those who had been given placebos, the caffeinated participants felt they had been more successful in the exercises.

In summarizing the findings, researchers from the Netherlands wrote: “It should be noted that the overconfidence in caffeine participants might have serious consequences in real-life work environments … because realistic self-perception is highly important in avoiding risks.”

Carter said the caffeine in coffee, tea or soda needs a well-rested brain to stimulate.

“If your decision-making abilities are drained, your tank is empty. Coffee’s not going to make it any sharper,” she said. “It’s an additive effect. First thing in the morning, yes, it’ll make you a little sharper. You brain is rested. But as you move throughout the day and as you deplete those stores and your abilities, coffee’s not going to add anything to it.”

But I’m A Night Owl

Council Member Kathie Tovo often appears unconcerned by council meetings that stretch into the early hours. 

“If I could set my own schedule, I’d be up late and sleeping a little later in the mornings,” Tovo said. Now that she has kids, she said, sleeping in is hardly an option.

Research suggests our genetics play a part in whether we’re a morning lark or a night owl. But Carter said that’s of little help when council members don’t have the chance to follow their internal rhythms; all are expected on the dais at 10 a.m.

“The problem comes when we start our day at 6 or 7 o’clock in the morning and then we expect to be able to still function well at 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning and make those potentially life-altering decisions for people,” Carter said.

Plus, if council members are expected back at City Hall by 9 the next morning, they’re not getting the 6 to 8 hours of sleep adults need. And the sleep deprivation continues.

While council members have discussed meeting rule changes over the past few weeks – including how to cut down on late-night meetings -- they have yet to schedule a vote on the items.