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Council work session raises efficiency questions

Thursday, February 10, 2011 by Michael Kanin

The way City Council does business is changing – and those changes could present the city’s executive staff with a problem.


City Manager Marc Ott has raised concerns about the Council’s new policy of conducting pre-meeting work sessions. “It potentially has an adverse impact on productivity because we have so many people, now, then, dedicated to two meetings, ” he told Council members yesterday.


“As I listen to this conversation, when you talk about the prospect of even doing work sessions or committee-as-a-whole, (and) you want to structure that to give direction, it begins to look more and more like another Council meeting, almost.”


As Wednesday’s work session ended, one reporter counted 21 city staff members leaving the meeting. In addition, numerous city staffers had to come to City Hall but could not fit into the Boards and Commissions Room, where the work session was held. One staff member said that at the beginning of the work session, there were 31 staff members sitting in the Council bullpen waiting and watching the proceedings.


The work session was the first of its kind for Council since the 1990s. Council Member Randi Shade called one portion of the afternoon “a weird dance.” That sentiment might as well have stood in for the meeting itself: For much of the proceedings, the city’s elected officials engaged in something that looked very much like a discussion that might have otherwise taken place in Council Chambers on a Thursday.


Council members conducted the meeting against the charged backdrop provided by Travis County Attorney David Escamilla’s investigation of potential violations of the Open Meetings Act. No one is talking about it – indeed, Mayor Lee Leffingwell warned at least one reporter that he wouldn’t discuss the subject – but that was the clear reason for the meeting.


Last night, The Austin Bulldog reported that Escamilla has filed “10 requests under the Texas Public Information Act to obtain records related to his inquiry” in addition to requests for documents pertaining to former Mayor Will Wynn and former Council Member Brewster McCracken. Wynn and McCracken left the City Council in June, 2009.


After the meeting, Ott elaborated on his concerns. He said that he thinks that the new meeting schedule will change the way the city operates. “The difficulty, at this point, is I don’t know exactly how” it will change, he said.


Ott went on to say that he will bring his team together “and dissect what it is going to take for us to prepare ourselves for both a work session, study session, pre-Council meeting – whatever it ends up being called – as well as the regular Council meeting.” 


Council Member Bill Spelman echoed Ott’s concerns. “We may not have to (go over some items) tomorrow because we’ve done it today, but we’ve also taken a lot of staff off line for two days rather than one day,” he said. “We would be a lot better doing it in one day than in two days,” he said.


Spelman added, however, that a substantive discussion of “one or two very big issues …  would be valuable.”


“I think it is a legitimate concern because we are tying up a lot of people who are on call for a number of hours,” said Leffingwell of Ott’s worry. “But it’s important and it has to be done – and really … the Council as the policy-making body, we have to have access to good advice to make good policy.”


Ott’s office will study the impact of this new way of doing business and report back to Council. Either way, it appears the meetings will become a fixture of Council deliberations for the time being.


In addition to hashing out details about agenda items, Council members may also use the Wednesday meetings to hear briefings that up until now have been presented on Thursday. These briefings, combined with a forum that allows for pre-meeting discussion and questioning, may shorten the Council’s regular meeting.


Although Wednesday’s proceedings were broadcast live on Channel 6, it is not clear whether that will always be the case.

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