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Council enacts changes to committee system

Monday, March 7, 2016 by Elizabeth Pagano

Just before the close of its meeting Thursday night, City Council made changes to its committee system.

City Council voted 8-3 in favor of Council Member Greg Casar’s resolution, which was intended to streamline the sometimes cumbersome committee system adopted just over a year ago. Council members Don Zimmerman, Ellen Troxclair and Ora Houston voted in opposition.

Zimmerman had strong feelings about the proposed committee changes, which he said would move the city in the wrong direction. With the changes, the committees “consume more time, they have less power and less discretion,” he said. “The way these things are written, I’m going to do everything I can to kill committees if this thing gets passed. Already they’re marginally useful. This would make them utterly worthless.”

Attorney Michael Whellan, who was speaking on his own behalf, urged Council to adopt policies that would ease the amount of time currently being spent on committee-related matters by upper city management and Council. He pointed out that while committees exist in state and federal systems, they are typically the only place where members of the public can speak through testimony, eliminating the redundancy seen over the past year at City Hall, where members of the public can also speak at meetings of boards, commissions and Council.

“People naturally feel compelled to speak to the four persons who are sitting on a committee and then – since the entire Council will be convening – to appear again for the entire Council as a whole. Obviously, this redundancy takes time and, certainly, patience,” said Whellan.

City management was hopeful about the changes. Assistant City Manager Robert Goode said that in his estimation, the changes could, indeed, make for a more manageable system. “We are stretched very thin at the moment,” said Goode. “We are concerned about the staff resources the committees are taking, because we want to provide the best support we can. So we’re there in force, and we’re there doing our best to support the committee structure, and we consider those more or less as mini Council meetings.”

Under the new rules, it takes two committee members to put something on a committee agenda, three committee members to move it to Council or four City Council members to place an item straight on the Council agenda (excepting the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, which is a committee of the whole, for which a majority is six votes). In addition, the new rules clarify that Council committees cannot direct staff, which Casar said had come up a couple of times in the past.

In terms of public comment, new rules may limit public testimony to one hour at committee and two hours at Council; Council will consider those rules at its March 24 meeting.

In addition, moving forward, Council members will serve two-year terms on committees, although they could choose to extend their tenure. Zimmerman offered measured support for that, at least conceptually, saying, “In theory, if the committees were actually meaningful and did real work, there would be a big advantage in having a two-year term because you could learn something about your subject matter. … If the committees were going to do real work, it would be a great idea to stick with it for two years so you could gain enough expertise and understanding that you could really contribute to the discussion. But I don’t see the committees being useful, so I don’t think it matters.”

New posting limits proved more controversial, however.

“This is probably the thing I’m most passionate about,” said Zimmerman. “By raising this bar just to have an idea or a policy decision even discussed, to raise that to two Council members has the effect of the majority of this Council simply squelching any idea that the majority doesn’t agree with. That’s the effect of this. You can’t even have something discussed in a public forum as an elected member of your district unless the majority agrees with you. That’s the effect of this.”

Other Council members, such as Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, took a different view. She said, “I think there are any number of millions of issues we could spend time talking about and could invite staff to talk with us about. And at the end of the day, we’re only going to have time to take on a certain number of them. And we need to be mindful of the time that we spend and ask staff to spend, and focus on issues where the topics have some chance of success.”

Casar agreed, saying the change was “critical.” He explained that it wasn’t intended to suppress minority viewpoints, but a way to winnow the items under consideration to a manageable amount, given time and resources. He asked, “If you can’t convince one other person on the committee to even take it up, then what’s it doing at committee?”

Similarly, it will no longer be possible for two Council members who do not serve on a committee to place items on that agenda. Casar took a similar line of reasoning to explain that change, saying, “(The goal is) to let the committees control their own agenda. And if Council members are really interested in something occurring on a committee, but they can’t even get two members of that committee to want to talk about it, then why force them to have a hearing on it?”

However, a proposed change that would have mandated putting qualified items on a committee’s earliest agenda was struck down. Casar explained that the purpose of that change was to address “challenges people had getting items that they wanted to get onto a committee agenda on that committee agenda,” which he heard has been a problem for months. But he, Tovo, Pool and Garza were in the minority. Those concerned that the measure could tie committees into long meetings and leave committee chairs less powerful won the vote.

Photo by M.Fitzsimmons (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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