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Council ponders changes to committee rules

Wednesday, February 3, 2016 by Jo Clifton

Last year, when City Council adopted its sprawling and time-consuming committee system, it used a model similar to one used by the Texas Legislature. Council members Ann Kitchen and Ellen Troxclair and Mayor Steve Adler had worked in that system and were comfortable with it. But because it is very time-consuming, it has put considerable burden on staff as well as Council members.

Council Member Greg Casar – with support from Adler, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Delia Garza – has proposed changes that would limit the number of items appearing on committee agendas and tighten up rules for moving those items to the full Council agenda. One of those items would require that a majority of committee members support an item being placed on an agenda before it appears there.

Casar told the Austin Monitor, “Whether by co-sponsorship or by vote, having the majority have control over the agenda will be helpful.” Right now, he said, if a person knows just one member of the committee, he or she can ask that person to put an item on the committee agenda.

“When all sorts of interested persons can ask to put an item on a committee agenda, it creates an issue where, politically, folks can just say yes – and then by ordinance it has to be put on the agenda,” Casar explained. “And we could wind up with very, very long committee agendas about things that just one person is interested in. But I think if the majority of the committee makes a decision (that) this is something we should be working on – I would like to get to that place.”

At Tuesday’s work session, during discussion of changes proposed for the committee rules, Garza told her colleagues, “The Legislature meets every two years for six months, and they work like 20-hour days. And what I feel has happened is we’ve done that (to ourselves) for the length of our term.

“I feel like for my two-year term, I’m having to work extremely long days, running from committee to committee to committee to committee of this (system),” she continued. “And I don’t get a year-and-a-half break” like the Legislature. “None of us get the year-and-a-half break. Our staff don’t get a year-and-a-half break.”

Garza, who chairs the Public Utilities Committee, noted that in several instances her committee has had to listen to items that only one Council member wanted to hear. She pointed out that the Council member requesting the item could have just as easily gotten information by contacting someone at the Austin Water utility, for example. “But they want that before the committee, and I think there’s other ways to take care of some issues,” she said.

Troxclair said she had not experienced that problem and suggested that one way to deal with it would be to give the committee chair more power to decide which items would be heard, similar to what occurs at the Legislature. Troxclair was a legislative aide before she was elected.

Kitchen told her colleagues that not all committees operated the same way and that she thought there should be some flexibility.

Casar also proposed that each committee consist of three members, instead of four, with the exception of the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, which is a committee of the whole Council. It was not clear from Tuesday’s discussion how that recommendation will fare.

Casar and his co-sponsors also would like to put a one-hour maximum for public comment on each item in committee. Public comment during committee meetings would no longer be called a public hearing, with that term reserved for regular Council meetings.

According to Casar’s resolution, “Council seeks to reduce time and workload burdens for city staff in carrying out and facilitating” Council’s committee process. The resolution also states that Council committees will not be the primary vehicle for taking public comment but will serve to get public comment early in the policymaking process.

Adler told his colleagues that he thought they should use Tuesday work sessions for lengthier conversations. He said they should get used to the idea that an item might appear on two, three or even four work-session agendas before moving on to a regular Council meeting agenda.

Casar added that it was important to make sure that a Council committee did not direct staff to take any action beyond providing information. He said that, for example, one of the committees he was part of had unintentionally stopped a procurement process.

Photo by Quinn Drombrowski made available through a Creative Commons license.

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