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Analysis shows zoning time changes might not shorten Council meetings

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 by Austin Monitor

Anyone who regularly attends City Council meetings knows that, fairly often, zoning hearings can drag on into the evening, and sometimes past midnight. There are a number of variables that can keep Council members past their bedtime, including staff briefings, executive session items, and a large, angry crowd at a hearing.


On the agenda this week is a measure sponsored by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez designed to change the structure of the agenda in order to shorten the time it takes to conduct a Council meeting.


The primary proposed changes are to move zoning cases from 4pm to 2pm; limiting public participation during citizen communications to once a month; scheduling briefings at 10:30am and limiting them to two a meeting; and changes in the procedure for signing up to speak.


But will the changes actually result in shorter meetings? Council Member Laura Morrison does not think it will.


But she said, “First of all I think it is important to look at the motivation behind the Mayor’s suggestion. He wanted to make sure we weren’t waiting for zoning and staying around until midnight unnecessarily. I certainly appreciate his attempt to make things more efficient.” However, after asking her aide, Robert Levinski, to do some research, Morrison concluded, “I don’t think that’s really as much of a problem as we might perceive it to be.”


Levinski said he has crunched the numbers from the last 21 Council meetings, and he doesn’t think the proposed changes will make much difference.


“This is as far back as I could go using the city’s online streaming video,” he said. “There are several caveats listed on the chart, because each Council meeting is unique. The survey clearly demonstrates that changing the zoning public hearings from 4pm to 2pm will not result in shorter meetings.” 


Over the last 21 council meetings, Levinski’s research showed that only three meetings went past midnight. 


“The August 6th meeting did have a 14-minute recess before zoning, but considering the meeting went until 12:13am, I do not believe closing that gap would have made much of a difference,” he said. “Two meetings that went past midnight (July 23 and Oct. 23) had no recesses before zoning. The time spent in recess has nothing to do with the length of the meetings. Instead, it is the substance of the issues that influences longer meetings (i.e. Water Treatment Plant 4, Downtown Density Bonus, Budget, Oak Hill Neighborhood Plan).”


He said that for the two or three Council meetings where there may have been some time savings as a result of moving zoning to an earlier time, the meetings ended at 8:38pm, 6:40pm, and 7:39pm. 


“The time savings is still questionable when you consider the actual occurrences at the meetings,” he said. “At the April 2nd meeting, the 2pm staff briefings did not occur until after the zoning public hearings. The briefings went well into the evening and could have easily eaten up that recessed time.”


He said the other two meetings were unique: the March 12th meeting had no executive session items; and the February 26th meeting was kept intentionally light due to the absence of the mayor.


Council Member Morrison said she is generally for whatever will shorten the meeting, but said there are some practical matters to consider when rescheduling the zoning hearings.


“I think that requires an extraordinary amount of flexibility on the part of citizens that might want to take part in the zoning hearings,” she said. “Because of the move from 4pm to 2pm, you couldn’t really determine whether that was going to happen, I presume, until the meeting starts. I’m concerned about people with child care or other commitments.”


“I hesitate to ask people if they want to participate to have to have that kind of flexibility, but I agree anything we can do to not have to stay until midnight would be great.”

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