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City Council set to untangle committees today

Thursday, March 3, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

City Council is set to tackle reforms of its committee structure in earnest today. The conversation has been pending for quite some time now, as thorny issues were being addressed instead. But, given the tone of last week’s work session, which is the last time Council members had a chance to discuss changes openly, it seems like the time for this thorny issue has come.

When the 11-member Council was elected in 2014, it quickly enacted a series of process changes that it promised would lead to a more efficient and more transparent way of doing business at City Hall. Primary among those changes was a revamp of the committee system that expanded the number of Council committees and the role they would play in policy decisions.

Slightly more than one year later, it’s clear that those changes have created a time-consuming, hard-to-follow system. To make the process a bit clearer, there are now recommendations from the Council Transition Committee and Council Member Greg Casar. But, up until last Tuesday, Council members largely avoided discussing the particulars of those proposals. When they did, it quickly became evident that there was a great deal to work out.

“My feeling is: If we don’t start doing something to limit the time of Council meetings and committee meetings, it hurts governance and it hurts the city,” said Casar. “A lot of people out there know that and have been very polite about it, but the fact of the matter is the amount of staff time and the amount of time that we don’t work on policy issues will hurt us.”

During last Tuesday’s work session, Council members spent most of their time focused on a proposal to change the number of sponsors needed to place an item on an agenda at the committee level or to move items from committee to the full Council. Currently, it takes only one committee member to place an item on that committee’s agenda, but Council is considering raising that threshold to a majority of committee members instead.

Council Member Don Zimmerman worried that the change could run afoul of “at least the spirit” of the Texas Open Meetings Act, although Adler explained that because committees are advisory, they are intentionally not subject to those rules.

The explanation did not change Zimmerman’s objection.

“If you consider the position Council Member Troxclair and I am frequently in, we have a minority point of view. So, effectively what this does – it prevents the minority point of view from even being discussed,” said Zimmerman. “I have better things to do than going to ribbon-cutting ceremonies. But if we put these rules in place, I don’t see the point of me showing up.”

Another change, from Council Member Delia Garza, would require three co-sponsors to move an item that originated in committee to the full Council, which is the same number of people needed to place an item on the regular Council agenda. The point of that, she explained, was that it was a “test of viability” of the item because without three other co-sponsors, the odds of something passing Council are “very small.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen joined Zimmerman in his concern about the changes. She explained that she saw a difference between placing an item on a committee agenda for discussion and sponsoring an item intended for Council consideration. She advocated for space for “all points of view.”

Kitchen, who headed the transition committee, appeared to disagree with Casar’s resolution on a number of points, saying they differed from the recommendations of the five-member committee. However, it’s worth noting that Casar was on that committee, as were his resolution co-sponsors Adler and Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. The other member of that committee, Council Member Leslie Pool, offered on the City Council Message Board to co-sponsor Casar’s resolution.

Garza explained that, regardless of what the transition committee put together, Casar’s amendment had three co-sponsors, and so it was on the agenda.

Then, there are the larger issues with the new committee system. Garza said her staff was “running ragged” preparing for committee meetings. “It’s been an extremely time-consuming effort. Frankly, I feel, in part, it’s taken time away from me being able to work on policy, when the intent was to give us more time. I think it’s done the opposite.”

Tovo made the point that it was important to consider not just how the Council was spending its time, but also how it was spending the time of city staff.

“It’s a taxpayer resource. Our time, their time, the work that we all need to do here at the city,” said Tovo. “I think we do need to balance the ability to talk about all ideas that come up with the need to really be efficient about our collective time.”

Somewhat fittingly, given the topic, Council members have not yet had time to discuss the proposed changes in depth. The resolution offers a number of revisions in an attempt to streamline the current process. These include, significantly, reducing the number of committee members and shifting the majority of public comment back to the full Council and away from committees.

“What I would like,” said Casar, “is to have a shared understanding of what committees are best used for, regardless of where we come out on different provisions, so we are all working in the same system.”

That sentiment, it seems, was not shared by all. Kitchen urged “flexibility” in the new rules. “It’s not the same for every committee; it’s not the same for every issue,” said Kitchen.

[embeddoc url=”http://www.austintexas.gov/edims/document.cfm?id=249041″]

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