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Council meetings running longer

Monday, July 17, 2006 by

Citizens wait hours to have their say

It’s 2am. Do you know where your City Council members are? If it’s a Friday morning, it’s likely that they are just finishing up the agenda from another Thursday City Council meeting.

During the past few months, meetings of the Austin City Council, as well as several city boards and commissions, have regularly gone past the statutory 10pm meeting curfew, and many have gone well into the early morning hours. (The 10pm cut-off time is routinely waived by a Council vote.)

However, on June 8 and 9, with 122 items on its agenda, the City Council adjourned at a mind numbing 3:35am. Other panels, such as the Planning Commission, Environmental Board, Historic Landmark Commission and others have gone well past midnight on at least one occasion in the past few months.

Some political observers at City Hall have begun wondering out loud in recent weeks if running marathon meetings into the wee hours is the best way to conduct government business. Not only does it put a strain on Council and commission members and the city staffers required to be at their meetings, but some say it can have the effect of disenfranchising citizens who must wait endless hours to get their three minutes to speak at a public hearing.

"Everyone has the right to speak," said neighborhood activist Jeff Jack. "But when they are forced wait hours and hours, they go home. They have jobs, they have families. It limits the amount of input on certain issues, and it often silences the voices of the people who are most affected by the issues."

He said it also opens the process up to some late-hour shenanigans.

"The people who are being paid to be there are well compensated for their time," he said, referring to the myriad agents and lobbyists who usher zoning cases and other projects through the maze of board, commissions and City Council. "But they also spend a lot of other time during the day waiting to speak to Council and staff members. People from neighborhood groups, who are volunteering their time, don’t usually get that opportunity. They have to wait – sometimes until 2am – to get their turn to speak on the issue. Often, by then, the deal is done."

While most citizens do not have the time, or the interest, to spend daylight hours at City Hall, there are some notable exceptions. Jack is one of them, along with Laura Morrison of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, along with some other neighborhood activists.

Recently, an item changed at a late hour at a Planning Commission meeting resulted in a 90-minute public hearing at City Council. Several Members of the Dawson Neighborhood Association came before Council to protest a zoning change made in their future land use map as it was approved. The neighborhood said a developer had gotten one of the commissioners to amend the map to change a strip of land he wanted to develop from residential to commercial zoning on the map. The change had been made at 1:30am, long after most of the neighborhood residents had gone home.

Council Member Brewster McCracken said there is a danger when issues are considered at a late hour when people are tired.

"That’s a fair statement," he said, reacting to the notion that a late hearing could exclude people who want to participate. ""It can certainly be a hardship for some people to have to wait until late to speak on a subject."

One factor driving the late meetings is the sheer volume of business that is coming before the city in recent months. During the last two Council meetings, on June 8 and 22, the Council had 128 and 122 items to consider. A random sampling of agendas for 2005 showed an average of between 40 and 60 agenda items per week.

Julie Beggs, who is in charge of putting together the Council agendas, said there are two ways for items to get on the agenda: either by the request of a Council member or the City Manager.

"It seems like there has just been a lot of items that have come up recently," she said. "Once we schedule a public hearing, because of all the notices that have to go out, it can’t be changed. Council can postpone it, but they don’t like to do that."

Many agenda items are also driven by earlier Council actions, such as first reading, or they must be heard within a certain time frame.

Chris Riley, outgoing chair of the Planning Commission, said that a crowded agenda will often mean a long meeting.

"We’ve seen a jump in the number of items on our agendas recently, though not a dramatic one," he said. "Sometimes, it’s the particular issue that takes the time, due the large number of people who want to speak about it."

It’s not unusual for a neighborhood or some other interest group to pack the Council Chambers, signing up 20, 30 or 40 people to speak for or against a particular topic. For instance, if 30 people sign up for one issue, each one gets 3 minutes, taking up a minimum of 90 minutes. Throw in Council discussion time, and one item out of an agenda can take two or more hours to complete.

But short of major changes to the City Charter, there’s not much that the Council can do, according to Assistant City Attorney Jennifer Gilchrist.

"Council members could recess a meeting they felt was going on too long," she said. "But they would have to continue the meeting within 24 hours. They couldn’t postpone things for several days."

She notes that state law does not provide the right of citizens to speak at public meetings, except for specified times, such as public hearings, but that the tradition of public speaking in Austin is so strong that several years ago, the city codified the right of any citizen to sign up to address the Council on any agenda item.

McCracken says—given the way Austin city government is structured—it’s just a sign of the times.

"As the city gets larger, we naturally have more issues to deal with," he said. "We’re in a period where there is a lot of building and a lot of economic activity. Sometimes, a large group of people will unexpectedly show up for a public hearing, and it’s our job to listen to them before we make a decision."

He notes that the Council is making some adjustments to the crush of agenda items. The Council is planning a special meeting on August 9 solely to handle zoning cases.

"We’re already seeing that this is a full-time job," said McCracken, who recently announced that he is dropping his law practice to concentrate on his Council duties. "We are becoming a big city."

Design ordinance travels through commissions

The draft Design Standards Ordinance began its journey through the city’s maze of boards and commissions last week, but if the Planning Commission’s handling of the measure is an indication, it may see a whole lot of "tweaking" over the next few weeks. Commissioners made nine recommendations for changes before voting to recommend the ordinance to the City Council.

The draft ordinance is the result of several months of work by Clarion Associates to codify a policy report "Raising the Design Standards in Austin, Texas" that was adopted by City Council in May, 2005 after more than a year of work by the Commercial Design Standards Task Force.

Following last week’s review by the Planning Commission, the draft ordinance goes next to the Environmental Board on July 19, the Design Commission on July 24 and the to City Council on August 10. The commercial design task force will continue to review the draft ordinance after each board or commission review in order to study recommended changes.

"This ordinance will provide a framework for design standards, organized by the type of roadway," said George Adams with the Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Department, who presented the review. "There will be a hierarchy of roadway types: Core Transit Corridors, Internal Circulation Routes, Urban Roadways, Suburban Roadways, and Highways and Hill Country Roadways."

As written, the draft ordinance divides the Design Standards into three main articles, outlining Site Development Standards, Building Design Standards and Mixed Use Standards.

Under the Site Development Standards, regulations are intended to ensure that buildings relate appropriately to surrounding developments and streets, to promote efficient pedestrian and vehicle circulation, and create a unique and identifiable image for development in Austin.

Building Design Standards include regulation that address the physical appearance of buildings, including requirements for glazing and shading to ensure that facades are pedestrian friendly and other options to improve building design.

Mixed Use Standards outline the districts in which mixed use development is allowed and the types of mixed use development that may occur.

Planning Commission members made a series of both major and minor suggestions for changes to the ordinance. Commissioner Matthew Moore suggested support for alley access to businesses, portions of "green" rooftops not count against impervious cover calculations, and that the city bear much of the expense for the licensing process where developers are paying for city infrastructure. A suggested to allow an administrative waiver when there is no opposition to a compatibility conflict was disapproved by the commission.

Commissioner Mandy Dealey sought to have accessibility regulations in the federal Fair Housing Act included in the Design Regulations, as well as excluding areas of the city affected by the University Neighborhood Overlay and the Great Streets program from the Design Standards ordinance.

Commissioner Cid Galindo recommended that some relief be provided for owners who wish to develop small commercial lots which could not reasonably accommodate the standards. He also suggested that Council consider appointing task forces to study both the long term feasibility of burying utility lines, and to revisit the city’s compatibility standards, which were developed in the 1980s and are out of date.

Details on the Design Standards, including the draft ordinance, can be found at http://www.ci.austin.tx.us/development/commercial_design.htm..

©2006 In Fact News, Inc. All rights reserved.

Special meeting . . . The Austin City Council will hold a special called meeting Wednesday afternoon to discuss Congressional redistricting. An item is scheduled for both executive and open session to allow the Council to hear from its attorneys and then direct the city manager to take action. Presumably that action would be in harmony with a brief filed on Friday on behalf of Travis County and the City of Austin related to an appropriate remedy for District 25, which currently includes part of Austin and Travis County. The county submitted its own map but the city did not join in the part of the brief in support of the map on Friday. The Council could decide to support the map submitted by the county or one of the other entities—there are plenty of maps—or the city could simply say it likes several of the maps. That would not include the map submitted by Attorney General Greg Abbott on behalf of the governor. That map divides Travis County into three parts, with none of the districts anchored here and effectively eliminates Democratic representation for the city. Congressman Lloyd Doggett of the 25th District said, "This map is designed to impose Republican rule on every Austin family and put an end to my service in Congress" . . . Taxi franchise rules under scrutiny . . . Under the gun to get a proposal in front of the Austin City Council to change the way it chooses taxi franchises, the Ground Transportation subcommittee of the Urban Transportation Commission has scheduled two meetings this week. Currently, Council members are scheduled at the July 27 meeting to draw lots to decide which on three candidate companies will be awarded a new taxi franchise. Many commission members says that’s not a good way to award a franchise. (See In Fact Daily, July 11, 2006) If the subcommittee can come up with a viable plan, the full Urban Transportation Commission may hold a special called meeting next week to consider the measure and pass it along to Council with a recommendation before the 27th . . . Austin gets green attention . . . Newsweek Magazine, picking up on the grassroots environmental movement that is growing despite the lack of a coherent federal policy, reported this week on changes being made by average Americans, both red and blue, to improve the environment. The article pointed to Austin as one of the few spots where a municipality is actually making a difference: "But among cities, few are as sustainable as Austin, Texas, which recycles its trash so assiduously that residents generated only 0.79 tons of garbage per household last year, down from 1.14 tons in 1992. Austin's city-owned electric company estimates that ‘renewable’ power, mostly from West Texas wind farms, will account for 6 percent of its capacity this year, nearly doubling to 11 percent by 2008 " . . . ACL Fest to benefit parks . . . Austin’s annual music bash, the Austin City Limits Music Festival, will not only provide headliners such as Van Morrison, Willie Nelson and Tom Petty (not to mention the String Cheese Incident), but will make a significant contribution to the Austin Parks Foundation. ACL Fest co-producers Capital Sports & Entertainment and Charles Attal Presents have entered into an agreement with the nonprofit organization that provides resources and facilitates partnerships that create and sustain area parks. The majority of funds will go towards Zilker Park improvements, but additional funds will be used to fund improvements to other parks in the city. ACL Fest runs Sept. 13-15.

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