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Council looks to avoid open-meeting violations at citizens’ forum

Wednesday, August 22, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Austinites interested in voicing their opinions to their elected officials, but who find it difficult to make the Austin City Council’s regularly scheduled citizens communications at noon on Thursdays, could have a chance on a Saturday this fall.

At their work session on Tuesday, City Council members came to a tentative agreement to hold a forum on Saturday, Oct. 27, that would allow citizens to bend their ears for three straight hours, and hopefully allow Council members to respond.

However, questions have been raised about whether Council members can engage in such an open-ended, back-and-forth forum with citizens. The Texas Open Meetings Act includes specific restrictions on what kinds of interactions Council members can have with citizens in particular circumstances.

For example, if a citizen addresses the Council during a forum on a subject that had not been posted for the public 72 hours beforehand, “the Council is limited to responding to an inquiry with a statement of specific fact or a recitation of existing policy or a suggestion to the body that you schedule the topic for a future meeting,” said Assistant City Attorney John Steiner. In other words, without a specific noted topic, Council would be restricted from the kind of back-and-forth they had in mind when they passed the citizens-forum proposal on March 8.

“If we use a citizens communications model, staff would have to look at each one case by case to see if it was sufficient notice under the open-meetings act,” Steiner said. So, if a citizen were to sign up to speak at the forum with a specific issue – say, “animal issues in Bouldin Creek” – Council members would be free to engage in a discussion. More vague topics – which are not uncommon on citizens’ communications sign-up sheets – such as “City issues” or “TBD” would limit Council input.

“I would like a situation where if we have additional questions we have the ability to address those,” Council Member Kathie Tovo said. “But we can’t unless the topics are posted.”

She and Council Member Laura Morrison expressed a preference for a forum that would be one part discussion of pre-determined items and one part free-for-all, meaning there would be time set aside on the agenda for speakers who had signed up that day. Council would not be allowed to discuss the items raised by those day-of speakers because of the lack of pre-posting.

Though there was some concern about logistics, Council Member Mike Martinez said such a forum, including discussion between citizens and Council members, is necessary to ensure transparency and voter trust in their elected officials.

“My preference would be, conduct it like citizens communications and have sign-up time period,” Martinez said. “I don’t think we’re going to be inundated with 45 people wanting to speak. It’s going to be the same 10 people that are mad at us and want to talk about the same issues, like fluoride and (airplane) con trails. I don’t think it’s going to be some logistical nightmare; I don’t think we’re going to have 100 people come down on a Saturday morning, but it’s important to give them that opportunity if they want.

“Having a pre-period sign up doesn’t give me great heartburn. It just gives us the ability to post these items with the 72-hour notice so that we can engage in a conversation with them. Because I think the people who are going to come down on a Saturday morning are going to want a little bit more than their three minutes; they’re going to want to say, ‘What do you think? What can you tell me?’ And we need to be able to post that properly so we can engage in that discussion.”

Though staff originally put the cost at such a forum at $4,275, Council reiterated Tuesday that there would be no need for the presence of assistant city managers, department managers, or other staff members, which accounted for $3,000 of that price tag, Staff is looking into how much it would cost for the city’s Channel Six to record and broadcast the forum, at Morrison’s request. Back in March, they priced Channel Six’s involvement at $750. If both of those costs are removed, staff estimates the price for the forum would come to about $525.

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