Council hears feedback on restructuring proposal
Friday, January 23, 2015 by Tyler Whitson
The new City Council tested out a lot of ideas at Thursday’s meeting, giving members of the public the opportunity to comment on proposed legislative changes via Twitter, call-ins and online polls in an environment evocative of a television program.
Though feedback varied on a lot of issues, the overall message from citizens was that they support many of Council’s proposed ideas and initiatives to enhance public engagement early in the legislative process. However, many are concerned about the idea of limiting public input at regular meetings, where speakers are guaranteed to address a quorum of Council members.
Mayor Steve Adler said that he believes staff will post an updated draft of the proposal today and that Council will hold a work session Tuesday to discuss further changes, with the hope of having an official item to consider at its first official meeting Thursday.
Adler also encouraged members of the public to continue posting comments at speakupaustin.org, on Twitter using the hashtag “myatxgov,” sending emails and otherwise providing feedback.
District 2 Council Member Delia Garza assured the public that Council intends for the new system to be a “trial run.”
“The plan was to do a six-month trial of this new system and then re-evaluate,” Garza said. “If the feedback at that time is — and if we recognize at that time — that the old system was better, I think that we all agree that we will go back to the old system.”
Council has proposed a sweeping set of changes to meeting procedures and Council committee structures that it says are aimed to enhance public engagement and make meetings shorter and more efficient.
Council also plans to enhance public access to meeting documents, minutes and other materials; initiate public engagement improvement, which will include creating a Public Engagement Task Force; and align the citizen boards and commissions with the Council committee structure over time.
In order to shorten meetings, Council has proposed holding them more frequently, grouping similar items together for rotation at different meetings and scheduling executive sessions so that they don’t interrupt regular meetings.
Council has proposed moving the majority of public input to Council committees, which will each consist of four Council members — appointed by the mayor and ratified by Council — though other Council members may attend those meetings. It also plans to assign all proposed ordinances or resolutions, with exceptions, to its corresponding committees before they can go to a regular Council meeting.
According to the draft proposal, Council may “maintain the ability to receive public input at Council meetings if: 1) public input was not received via a Council committee or 2) by the request of four Council members. Public input during Council meetings will be received during a limited time frame with the goal of establishing a time certain for testimony that is accessible for the public.”
Austin League of Women Voters Advocacy Director Frances McIntyre made a statement early in the meeting that was echoed by many throughout the night. “There really should be no rules that limit who can speak before Council,” she said to applause.
McIntyre added that her organization is “concerned that moving almost all public comment to committees rather than the full Council would not only be confusing to the public, but might create a perception that they do not have access to the whole Council.”
District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen said that Council is still working out the kinks regarding how it will limit public hearings at its meetings. “We have talked about the fact that public hearings at the full Council level might be limited in some way, but we haven’t talked about that specifically,” she said.
Adler elaborated on Kitchen’s statement. “We fully anticipated that there would be public hearings in certain instances, depending on what was being considered. We all recognized that, and we’d want to make sure that whatever public input there was appropriate to that measure,” he said. “But beyond that, we hadn’t gotten to a one-size-fits-all rule.”
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