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Austin Council meetings run far later than peers’

Wednesday, November 19, 2014 by Michael Kanin

A report from Office of the City Auditor staff appears to corroborate what many Austin City Council observers have long lived: that the city’s Council meetings are much lengthier than those of their peers.

The data, presented by Assistant City Auditor Patrick Johnson and Deputy City Auditor Corrie Stokes, suggests that the average length of an Austin City Council meeting is nine-and-a-half hours. According to the same study, the average length of a meeting in Austin’s peer cities is three hours and 20 minutes.

In a statistic that could well underscore the issue at hand, auditors also found that the average number of council meetings per year for those peer cities is 35. The Austin City Council, meanwhile, meets just 24 times per year.

Council Member Bill Spelman circled that fact. “It turns out that we meet approximately twice as many hours per year as our average peer city,” he said. “That would be a little less onerous, perhaps, if we met a little more often.”

Johnson and Stokes told Council members that they selected eight peer cities for their study. They are: Phoenix; San Antonio; Dallas; San Jose, California; Charlotte-Mecklenburg, North Carolina; Fort Worth, Texas; Oklahoma City and Kansas City, Missouri.

Council Member Laura Morrison noted the emphasis that the City of Austin has placed on citizen input, and its impact on the length of meetings. “We have a lot of public hearings, and some of them are extensive,” she said. “We need to, in some way, capture that … so that we can acknowledge that a lot of our meeting is allocated to hearing from the public. That’s part of how we do things.”

Her comments came after Johnson suggested that auditors will look at what types of items generally take the most time.

After Council Member Chris Riley suggested that he and his colleagues look to shift some of their labor to subcommittees, Spelman noted that he’d seen that approach work early in his career. “If I may offer anecdotal evidence: I worked for two years for a city council member in Los Angeles, and that’s exactly what the role the city council committees played,” he said.

Auditor staff are set to have a full report about the issue ready for public consumption by Dec. 5. They also list a possible Dec. 11 public hearing on the matter.

However, despite clear support from Spelman and Riley for moving forward with some level of Council input before members of the current body make way for a new Council in January, Mayor Lee Leffingwell suggested that they wait on the matter. “This is a great discussion to have. It would have been a great discussion to have a year or two or three years ago,” he said. “I think it’s pretty much irrelevant to have this discussion right now … I appreciate the good work you’ve done, [but] I think it should be something to reserve for the new Council.”

Meanwhile, Leffingwell prepared his colleagues for the possibility of their continuing this week’s meeting Friday, if — as is anticipated — Council members are unable to get through their 180-plus item agenda.

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