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Staff and City Council work to streamline meetings
Wednesday, March 11, 2009 by Austin Monitor
The City Council could adopt some changes to streamline and simplify its meeting agendas after a new Mayor and Council Members take office this spring. In the meantime, the City Manager’s office has taken some administrative steps to reduce the number of items presented to the Council each week.
The review of the Council’s agenda-setting procedures was prompted last fall after the Council unanimously approved an interlocal agreement with Travis County concerning the operation of the Central Booking facility at the Travis County Jail. The item was approved without backup material, and Council Member Mike Martinez was dismayed to learn after the fact that the agreement includes language that creates space in the jail to take blood samples from people arrested on suspicion of DWI.
The staff’s review looked at items that arrive without backup material, as well other factors that complicate the agenda process. The review included suggestions from both citizens and staffers on streamlining the agenda. One option is to empower staff to administratively handle some routine fee waivers, and allowing the consolidation of other routine items (such as altering speed limits). The staff also raised the possibility of holding more work session or committee meetings apart from Thursday’s regular Council meeting. The review also proposed reducing the number of items posted as “time certain,” which would give the Council more flexibility, and allow it to postpone the final votes on zoning items that have already had public hearings.
Chief of Staff Anthony Snipes stressed that those options were not being presented as recommendations from the staff. “The City Council establishes and controls all procedures for its meetings,” he said. “Whatever conclusions or modifications are made to the general process, it will be a council-driven process. When the newly-elected Mayor and Council convene, they have an opportunity to decide how they are going to operate in the coming years.”
Some procedures are dictated to the Council by state law or the City Charter. In zoning cases, the law requires that the appropriate land use commission (i.e. the Planning Commission or Zoning and Platting Commission) must hear the cases before the Council takes action.
Council Members, for the most part, did not focus on the issues related to backup material on zoning cases. “We all know that a lot of the action on a zoning case happens when there’s a hearing scheduled,” said Council Member Laura Morrison. “It’s sort of inherent that there is going to be late backup. I think that our staff does a great job of keeping people informed when things are moving so rapidly.”
Council Member Mike Martinez made it clear he wanted to ensure that whatever changes are made, the Council would still have the ability to place items on its own agenda. “Sometimes we literally scrap something together at 4:00pm on Friday and you guys have to stay late and the law department has to stay late,” he said. “I want to make sure we’re operating under the same rules.” However, he did note that streamlining the agenda could have significant benefits. “A lot of this is very appealing. We struggle with the lengthy meetings we have,” he said. “Some of this is going to be great.”
The City Manager’s Office has already adopted some new internal procedures to govern when items are placed on the Council agenda in hopes of preventing a repeat of last fall’s situation with the interlocal agreement on the Travis County Jail. “We have modified late backup,” Snipes told the Council. “Right now…items will not be posted without supporting documentation unless there is a very, very extreme reason why those need to go forward.”
Staff is also creating a system to track which departments bring items forward without the appropriate supporting documents. “We call it the ‘purple slip,’” said Snipes. “It documents late submittals of agenda items and allows our Assistant City Managers and our departments to address problem areas.”
The staff has also moved to a smaller group for the weekly agenda review meeting and is conducting a review of the electronic agenda management system. Staffers are also working on a new electronic system to track the status of the Council’s directives to the City Manager to provide status updates until they are complete.
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