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Adler talks about his agenda for new Council

Sunday, December 21, 2014 by Jo Clifton

Mayor-elect Steve Adler has proclaimed that his administration will give Austin “a new way forward.” He has talked of the 10-1 system as a restart for city government. Now Adler has to put forth some concrete ideas and get his new City Council colleagues on board with a plan that he believes will be more responsive to Austin citizens than the old system.

The Austin Monitor sat down with Adler after his election last week to talk about the first steps he has planned when he and his new colleagues take office Jan. 6.

Adler said he had met with each of the 10 district Council members-elect. “I think people want things to be done a little differently. I think that we can make some structural changes in how Council works.”

Most importantly, Adler wants to increase public engagement and interaction. “It’s my hope that this Council could consider that and debate that and approve that early,” he said. “I would like to see a setup that structures as we begin … I would hope that we would do that before we start considering things as a Council.”

“I think it will be easier to do if we do it early, rather than starting on one process and swapping out,” he continued. “If we were to do that, there would be a whole lot of details we would have to work out.” Adler said he had discussed the matter with City Manager Marc Ott, and Adler was “very hopeful that we’re going to get there” after that conversation.

There is widespread agreement among staff and the current Council, as well as members of the public who regularly participate in Council meetings, that the current meeting system is broken.

Adler said, “I know that the system was stressed over the past year because we were going through a campaign and that probably added an additional element to what was happening, but at the same time it just put in bold relief the opportunities that exist to make the system better. I think we’re going to be able to get it done,” because the new system will allow for such structural changes.

“We need to set up structures so it really is more thoughtful and deliberative,” Adler said. “We need to do that as quickly as we can. Right now, people come to testify, they wait eight hours, and then it doesn’t make any difference what they say. The decisions have already been made … There are ways to for us to handle public engagement earlier in the process so that it can actually impact the direction of how things go … We should take some public testimony at the committee level and not all at the end just before we vote.”

Council committees, he said, would mean that not every member has to hear 12 issues; instead groups of three to five members of the Council would hear about two or three issues at a time. “And maybe the board or commission that just spent two weeks talking about the issue would sit on the dais with the Council, or possibly just the chair of the committee,” Adler said.

Additional input from citizen commissions would mean that “there’s not a loss of the nuance.”

Adler added, “I’m not particularly concerned about how the old Council set the agenda for this Council.” The 2014 Council set Jan. 29 as the first regular meeting day for 2015.

“This Council will sit down and figure out how it wants to work its agendas,” Adler said. He thinks the new Council should have broad policy conversations about the different areas the city is involved in before it begins hearing disputes and making the kind of decisions that regularly appear on Council agendas.

Adler suggested a workshop on business models for the utilities, sustainability and urban planning as some of the areas that might be addressed. “When we are confronted by a specific dispute, this Council would be able to deal with it more broadly … At the very least, we will have a [more] common vocabulary than the Council would’ve otherwise had,” he concluded.

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