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Transition panel reaches some conclusions

Wednesday, January 20, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Mayor Steve Adler has proposed adding an extra week to the time between when an item is posted on City Council’s draft agenda and the day Council hears the item. Members of the transition committee – an unofficial Council committee working on changes to committee rules and procedures – seem to have reached agreement on some changes to Council procedure; however, there did not seem to be a consensus on that particular proposal at the committee’s Tuesday meeting. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo seemed particularly concerned, possibly because of what she has heard from city staff, but also because of her own experience with putting things on the agenda that need rapid resolution.

Assistant City Manager Robert Goode sent a memo to the mayor and Council on Friday saying, “While staff understands the need for proper time to review this information, we strongly believe” that adding more time between posting and Council consideration “is not the best solution.” Shifting the posting deadline, he wrote, “will cause tremendous re-engineering of existing systems and will have a dramatic impact on many staff processes.”

Goode pointed out that draft agendas typically receive “few substantive changes between posting date and finalization. Staff estimates that up to 70 percent of agenda items do not change substantially between draft and final postings.” He noted that the items most likely to appear between the draft and the final versions of the agenda are items from Council and items referred by committees.

Instead of changing the timeline for all items, Goode suggested that Council establish a 10-calendar-day goal between Council committee review and full Council consideration. He also urged Council offices to engage with staff in the online question-and-answer process on an earlier and more frequent basis.

The five-member Council committee – which includes Adler, Tovo, Chair Ann Kitchen, and Council members Greg Casar and Leslie Pool – did agree that items from Council and recommendations from committees should follow the same posting guidelines. There seemed to be some agreement that items approved by committees should be posted on Council agendas at least 10 days before the meeting in question, which Goode suggested.

Council members Delia Garza and Ellen Troxclair, who are not on the committee, joined the meeting during the discussion, bringing to seven the number of Council members participating. Six members of Council constitute a quorum, but no one expressed reservations about their attendance at the meeting of what Kitchen calls an “informal” committee. The meeting was not posted on the city’s website.

(Update: Following publication, it was brought to the Monitor’s attention that although the meeting was not posted on the page listing all other committee and commission meetings, it was posted on a page accessed through the City Council page via a link to committees. However, the posting did not include the place within City Hall that the meeting would occur and the agenda offered no documents to indicate what particular issues would be discussed.)

Casar and Adler have worked on crafting the new rules, although they do not necessarily agree on all the fine points. Both agreed that committees should be hearing complex and important items, generally not items from city management, and that an item should not appear on committee agendas unless a majority of the committee has requested it.

Adler also said that he wants complex items to be hashed out at Tuesday work sessions, even if that means it will take several work sessions and postponements before Council is ready to vote on those controversial items.

Adler told the Austin Monitor that he sees work sessions as “a needed opportunity for Council to discuss issues in a group collectively, because there is no other opportunity for us to do that. We either do it in work session or we do it at the Council meeting, because in the committees we’re operating as less than the whole Council. And I think we can help save time at Council meetings if, when we’re together, we use that time more to talk to each other.”

Right now, Adler said, items come up on the work-session agenda because they are scheduled for Council action on Thursday. He said he would like to see more discussion and hashing out of solutions at those work sessions.

It would not be unusual, he said, for an item to be on two or three work-session agendas before coming to Council for action. He said everyone should know at the end of the work session which items would be heard on Thursday and which would be postponed.

Adler also suggested that Council members could put items for discussion on the work-session agenda but not on the Thursday agenda. “I just think it’s a tool … that we have not fully explored in the overall process,” he said. At the same time, Adler said he hopes that questions of staff will be moved into the Q&A process and in private conversations between staff and Council members.

There was also considerable discussion, but no apparent consensus, on how much public testimony should be allowed at both committee and Council meetings. Adler’s chief of staff, John-Michael Cortez, pointed out that Council could not really limit testimony on ordinances, including zoning changes.

The full Council will be discussing changes to procedures for the work sessions, committees and agenda posting at next Tuesday’s work session.

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