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Council members debate changes to public participation rules

Wednesday, November 2, 2011 by Josh Rosenblatt

How much authority does City Council have over citizens’ participation in Austin’s legislative process? That’s the question Council members began to tackle at Tuesday’s work session, engaging in an hour-long debate in an attempt to figure out how best to balance the need for efficiency and the need for democracy at meetings.


Responding to moves made by a few enthusiastic citizens (namely municipal gadfly Clay Dafoe) over the past few months that have led Mayor Lee Leffingwell to limit the number of agenda items citizens can speak on, Council Member Laura Morrison raised the issue yesterday of making official changes to Council policy and/or city code as they relate to citizen participation.


Morrison posed two questions for her colleagues to consider. First, How many items should a person be allowed to speak on at any one Council meeting? Currently that number is three. Secondly, Morrison asked, how many speakers must sign up to speak on an item for it to be pulled off the Council consent agenda. According to city code, that number is two, but Leffingwell has been allowing any item with one person signed up to speak to be pulled.


“What we’re trying to balance here is making sure that we’re able to get input and participation from the public but to have our meetings move along in a reasonable and timely manner,” said Morrison.


Unfortunately for all involved, City Code is vague when it comes to addressing the issue of how many items a citizen should be allowed to speak on. According to section 2-5-29, “a person is not limited in the number of items on which the person may register to testify.” Except, the code goes on, as provided in section 2-5-25, which states, “A person, other than a council member, may not participate in removing more than three items from the consent agenda for a single council meeting.”


According to Assistant City Attorney Deborah Thomas, 2-5-29 is proof of “a clear understanding that the Council and the city is interested in having as much participation as is appropriate.” It’s just that, according to 2-5-25, what is appropriate is three items.


Asked for clarification on the code by several Council members, Thomas said that speaking on an item is equivalent to participating in removing that item from the agenda. In other words, a speaker who has already signed up to speak on three items is not allowed to jump on the fourth simply because he/she is the fourth or fifth speaker on that fourth item’s list – that is, that he/she was not one of the first two people to sign up for that item (two being the Leffingwell Council’s minimum for an item being pulled).


Council Member Kathie Tovo disagreed with a speaker being “charged” for an item he/she didn’t technically pull. “If there are items that have already been pulled from the consent agenda, I don’t think those should be charged to somebody’s three times to speak,” she said. Tovo argued that several people signing up to speak on an item “signifies a general interest in it; the public wants to have a voice in that decision. To me that amounts to about the same thing as a Council person pulling an item.”


But Council Member Chris Riley argued that limits on the number of times any individual can speak allow Council to move the business of government forward.


“We could be spending all day hearing from the same two people if we don’t put some limit on the ability of speakers to speak,” said Riley. “Four or five people, you could really frustrate Council’s ability to get through the agenda in an orderly way. … (With limits) we’re not as vulnerable to a small group of people pulling many, many items off the agenda and essentially hijacking the meeting.”


Morrison, who said she and Council Member Bill Spelman will be returning to Council with proposed code changes, asked her colleagues to consider the possibility of a compromise. Under the terms of that compromise, any item with only one speaker signed up would be left on the consent agenda. However, that speaker (regardless of how many items he/she had already spoken on) would be given three minutes to address the entire consent agenda before Council votes on it.


“That way they could raise flags, and if we think it needs more … then we would have the opportunity to pull something off consent,” said Morrison.

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