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Council members debate public input plan

Wednesday, January 28, 2015 by Tyler Whitson

The future of public input at City Council meetings remains unclear ahead of possible action Thursday, as Council members continue to discuss whether and how to limit it in favor of moving it to committee meetings.

During a Tuesday work session, Council members reacted to the public feedback they received during and after last Thursday’s public hearing about an ordinance that would enact sweeping changes to Council’s meeting procedures and committee structure.

“The main thing that I’ve heard — and I think we could all agree that we heard last Thursday — was, ‘We want to be able to have a chance to address the full Council,’” said District 2 Council Member Delia Garza. “I feel like every single person said that.”

The ordinance, on Council’s agenda for Thursday, incorporates reforms that Council members have said they hope would shorten meetings. These include taking public input on items during committee meetings and subsequently restricting the public from speaking on these items at Council meetings, with certain exceptions.

A recent draft of the ordinance includes the following provision: “For an item that has been considered by a council committee, public comment shall be taken at the request of four council members. The method in which comment will be taken is at the discretion of the council.”

Committees will consist of four Council members, who will be appointed by Mayor Steve Adler with approval from Council.

District 5 Council Member Ann Kitchen took on the task of publicly comparing a draft of the ordinance to a list of proposed amendments that she posted to the City of Austin Council Message Board on Monday.

Kitchen called limiting public input at Council meetings the “number one issue” related to the reforms.

“I received different types of comments from the public hearing and from when I went out into the district and talked to neighborhoods. I did receive a lot of enthusiasm from people for moving things to the committees and a lack of concern about the fact that it wasn’t in front of full Council,” Kitchen said. “What people were telling me is that they felt like, when it got in front of full Council, it was already decided.”

Garza said she agrees that “the overwhelming majority has said that public input earlier is better,” but that she wants Council to consider removing the requirement that four Council members request public comment. “If this process works the way we’re hoping it will, that will be a shorter public hearing in front of the entire Council.”

Limiting the length of public input at Council meetings may be a better option, Garza added. “Maybe that’s where we put a limitation of a minute and a half or two minutes, as opposed to the three minutes,” she said.

District 1 Council Member Ora Houston commented on a November report by the Office of the City Auditor, which found that Austin’s Council meetings run far longer than those of peer cities. “The audit, if I’m not mistaken, indicates that if we move executive session to another day and move zoning to another day, then we really are in line with our peer cities,” Houston said.

Council has proposed moving executive session meetings to times that would not interrupt and lengthen Council meetings, and grouping agenda items by topic so that Council members do not discuss certain issues, such as zoning, at every meeting. They also discussed potential ways to whittle down the number of committees that would be part of the new structure.

“One thing is to look at reducing the number of committees,” Houston said. “The other thing is, we can try having executive sessions on one day, zoning on one day, and see what that looks like for having the ability for people to have full, open accessibility to the Council where everybody is hearing the issue.”

Adler offered a different perspective. “It’s not necessarily a choice between having a public hearing and having no public hearing,” he said, presenting potential scenarios in which four Council members will call for public input and test out new ways to structure it.

“We know, again, what a public hearing looks like, generally,” Adler said. “What we haven’t tried are the different kinds of ways that we could do a public hearing if it had, in fact, gotten a full hearing in front of a committee.”

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar related concerns that he said residents have raised about being unable to attend committee meetings if they take place during regular working hours, thereby losing the opportunity for public input.

“If we are going to choose to restrict the ability of the public to comment at the Council level — which, right now, I’m inclined to do — it would be only if the public knows they can come before a committee after work,” Casar said.

District 7 Council Member Leslie Pool suggested that Council incorporate language into the ordinance indicating that items with demonstrated public interest should take place in the evenings. Kitchen said she would be open to incorporating such language into her list of amendments.

At one point, Adler reiterated that the changes they are considering are not necessarily set in stone, and that Council plans to revisit them. “We’ll continue to monitor it,” he said.


Photo by Bill Koplitz (This image is from the FEMA Photo Library.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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