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Ott plans changes in providing backup for Council items

Thursday, October 16, 2008 by Austin Monitor

City manager Marc Ott, acknowledging flaws in the system for providing Council Members and the public background information for items on the Council agenda, said he would be recommending changes in the process that might delay some decisions.

 

Specifically, Ott wrote in a memo to Council, “there will likely be an impact for some of our users (developers, businesses, etc.)” whose requests may be delayed if related backup materials are not complete. “We will be evaluating ways to minimize these impacts as we develop these changes,” he said.

 

The Council recently voted to approve an interlocal agreement with Travis County even though they did not have backup for the agenda item. After Travis County approved it, some Council members had second thoughts and Mike Martinez in particular wanted to know whether they could reconsider. However, it was too late. Ott, who took over as city manager in February, inherited the agenda system from his predecessor, who inherited it from her predecessor.

 

In his memo, Ott called the agenda system “flawed” and noted that a lack of backup had put the Council in a difficult situation.  He told In Fact Daily that his staff is working on some improvements, which he expects to bring to Council within the next few weeks for their review.

 

Although city staff chooses the majority of items that go on each week’s agenda, Council members also routinely place items on the agenda under “items from Council.” In the past, Council Members have been able to get those items on Thursday’s agenda if they made it to the agenda office by noon on the previous Friday, nearly a week before the Council meeting. Now, Ott is expected to push for an earlier deadline for Council—possibly Wednesday– to give staff more time to review those items before they are placed on the agenda.

 

Although Martinez said he agreed it would be more courteous for Council to get their items to staff earlier, sometimes that would not be possible. “Anything that we can do to help facilitate staff putting the agenda together as quickly as possible is always a good thing. But the law requires a 72-hour posting notice. And as long as two Council members want to post an agenda item–as long as it’s to the city manager’s office 72 hours before the meeting—it should be posted. That’s the law,” he said.

 

Council Member Lee Leffingwell said, “I personally appreciate the opportunity to have a review by the Law Department to make sure that I don’t do something grossly illegal and get myself in trouble as well as the city … but if we’re going to do something like this, it has to be on a timely basis. If they’re going to have a policy like that, that means they’re going to have to work overtime. I don’t want to be in the position, for me and my colleagues, of not being able to post an item . . . just because somebody hasn’t completed their review. If they want to review it, that’s fine but I want to be able to post it as long as I meet the deadlines.”

 

Council Member Brewster McCracken said, “I understand why the city manager wants items from Council to be in earlier because if there’s a complicated item that requires a lot of staff work then getting it in late on Friday afternoon understandably causes some havoc. There are other things that are not that complicated that come from Council offices and those things don’t need much staff work. So I think there’s probably some accommodation on both sides that we can achieve.”

 

McCracken said items from Council that require staff to prepare a fiscal note take more staff time and need more scrutiny than other items, such as routine fee waivers. He added that cases which frequently come to Council with late back-up, like zoning matters, often do so because they go through a number of changes and because the Planning Commission or the Zoning and Platting Commission may make recommendations shortly before the items appear on the Council agenda. He said getting the backup on those items shortly before the hearing is less problematic for the Council than on contracts because the commissions and staff provide a screening process.

 

In addition, McCracken said, “We are normally taking quite a bit of the public information at the hearing so when we get the backup is not as critical in my experience.”

 

Council Member Sheryl Cole added another perspective on zoning cases, which frequently arrive on the Council agenda with incomplete backup. She said, “The nature of those cases changes minute by minute and we shred way too many trees to keep us informed…but I think that could use the most tightening up.”

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