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Reporter’s Notebook: Staying confused

Monday, September 28, 2015 by Michael Kanin

Staying confused… Followers of the City Council Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee likely recall its Aug. 27 meeting, in which members opted to vote on a contentious solar energy item without taking input from the many members of the public who signed up to speak, prompting a public scolding from Frances McIntyre, advocacy director for the Austin League of Women Voters. Well, it appears that the committee has yet to work out the kinks. “As usual, I’m slightly confused,” said Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, who signed up to speak at the committee’s Sept. 24 meeting on two items, one of which was a briefing. Although Council Member Sheri Gallo, who chairs the committee, said, “We generally don’t take citizen communication on briefings,” Reed, having signed up to speak on the briefing, made a few comments about it nonetheless. “I don’t know if I did something illegal,” he said after wrapping up. “No, thank you very much. We stay confused up here, so we probably didn’t even notice,” Gallo responded. Although the section of City Code relating to citizen participation at committees does not mention briefings – apparently leaving that up to committee discretion – it does mention action items, which was another source of confusion at the meeting. Unless an item or hearing is continued at a later meeting or the committee decides to limit public comment within the limits of state law, City Code reads, “The chair should not refuse permission to speak to a person who has registered to speak, and who is present and ready to speak.” That refusal appeared to happen by accident, when the committee made a recommendation to Council on an item related to the purchase of an energy storage system for Austin Energy without hearing from Zilker neighborhood resident David King, who had signed up to speak on the item. “This is an action item, so we do have the ability for citizens to communicate with us on action items, and that is David King,” said Gallo immediately after the vote. King did not seem upset, however, as it appeared he had intended to speak in favor of the decision the committee ultimately made. “Sorry about that, David, you kind of got buried in here with all these numbers,” said Gallo. “As you all know, our sign-up system for our committee meetings leaves a little to be desired, and it’s a little confusing when you get the sheet with numbers and names and everything in not really the right order. So thank you for your patience on that, and if I have missed you when we get to an item, please let us know that.”

Da da da … what you do’s and what you don’ts… According to a Saturday post on the Windsor Park Neighborhood Association listserv, Mayor Steve Adler’s Chief of Staff Director of Community Engagement Jim Wick passed out guides at the Sept. 23 Austin Neighborhoods Council meeting on connecting and communicating with the mayor and City Council offices. The guides include some very frank advice. While a document on “connecting” consists mainly of contact information, the “communicating” document includes a list of do’s and don’ts on ways to effectively communicate with Council offices. “We want to hear from you, and we want to help you. Here are a few suggestions to help you help us,” the document reads. The top three do’s are “do your research” by making requests and concerns as specific as possible; “work the system” by understanding the systems for boards and commissions, Council appointees and committees; and “go through aides” when reaching out. “You might be amazed at how much quicker you get a response if you contact aides directly,” it reads. The don’ts, which are a bit more specific, include “don’t call council members at home unless they’ve said that’s okay with them,” “don’t expect a same day meeting to be scheduled,” “don’t show up unannounced or without a meeting scheduled and expect to see someone” and “don’t use council members’ personal e-mails to communicate with council members.” Those who have faithfully adhered to the outlined do’s and don’ts without success may find the last “don’t” to be the most helpful. “Don’t be afraid to follow up,” it reads. “Due to the high volume of incoming communication, things can and do slip through the cracks. If you don’t hear anything after a few days, please follow up.”

Qualifier(ing)… We at the Austin Monitor admit that journalistic lingo is often encumbered by the political kabuki we so fully concern ourselves with. To that end, while there are for all intents and purposes five big names in the running for the Democratic nomination for Travis County sheriff, our readers should expect a cumbersome qualification in our future coverage of the race until at least December. That’s when, per Texas statute, Sally Hernandez will finally be able to announce her candidacy without automatically triggering her own resignation as Precinct 3 county constable. Even as a draft campaign continues to “raise awareness” for Hernandez and releases policy papers on key issues in the race, and as she herself appears on discussion panels with the other official candidates, Hernandez must maintain that she is still entirely undecided about making official her commitment to joining the race (dig?). Even as the only candidate – er possible candidate – in attendance at last Tuesday’s public hearing on the Commissioners Court’s proposed tax rate, Hernandez remained judiciously equivocal about her intent. In between rapid-fire questions about her position on video visitation at county jail facilities, the Monitor asked Hernandez whether she is running for sheriff. Without skipping a beat, Hernandez smiled and replied, “I am seriously considering it.”

This week’s Reporter’s Notebook items come from the notebooks of reporters Tyler Whitson and Caleb Pritchard.

This post has been updated to correct mayoral staffer Jim Wick’s title. He is the Director of Community Engagement, not Mayor Adler’s Chief of Staff.

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