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Confusion and frustration continue over Council committees

Tuesday, February 21, 2017 by Jack Craver

City Council appears united in the belief that its committee system must change, but debate on Thursday about who will serve on what committee shows that Council members have still not reached a consensus on what exactly the new system should look like.

While a measure that cut in half the number of committees (from 10 to five) passed on the consent agenda at Council’s most recent meeting, a number of Council members voiced dismay when asked to approve the slate of committee appointments submitted by Mayor Steve Adler.

Besides the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee, which every Council member sits on, there are now four committees that have four members: Audit and Finance; Housing and Planning; Mobility; and Health and Human Services.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo was particularly disappointed that she had not been named to the Housing and Planning Committee, noting that housing policy is one of her “critical areas of attention.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen also said she would like to sit on that committee and criticized “an arbitrary limit of four people” for each of the four committees.

Council Member Leslie Pool agreed, saying that she envisioned four being the minimum number of members, not the maximum. She didn’t see a problem with potentially far more Council members sitting on certain panels, “up to a committee of the whole” Council, as is already the case for the Austin Energy Utility Oversight Committee.

“I wanted fewer committees, but I wanted them to be larger, in order to accommodate however many Council members might want to serve,” she said.

The problem, explained Adler, is that city code still limits committees to four members. Council is planning to develop a longer-term reform of the committee structure in about six weeks, when a team of consultants is expected to present a series of recommendations aimed at aligning Council’s processes with six strategic outcomes that were developed during a Council retreat last month.

In the meantime, said Adler, “I thought that it was my responsibility to appoint committee chairs and committees.” He added that “it is our understanding that anybody can attend any committee they want to” even if they’re not a voting member.

Adler also rejected a suggestion by Tovo that the appointments to the housing committee be voted on separately at a later date so that Council members could further discuss what they expect the committee’s purview to be and whether they want to make an exception to the membership limit for that committee. Per the ordinance approved by Council in 2015, Council must vote on his entire slate of committee appointments, Adler said.

“We can certainly change that, but that would require us to change the ordinance,” he said. City Attorney Anne Morgan agreed.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan, who recently drafted a written outline of how he believes committees should function and the roles they should serve, emphasized that the current appointments are an “interim” solution. Not being a member of a committee, he stressed, will not prevent a Council member from being involved in a given policy arena.

“I think it’s pretty clear that we as a body are not trying to exclude voices or participation, and the committees themselves do not make final recommendations or pass ordinances. It all comes back up to (the full Council) anyway,” he said.

In a statement posted to the Council message board earlier this month, Flannigan proposed that committees be focused on “long-term issues” tied to one of the six strategic outcomes, rather than making recommendations on specific ordinances or resolutions. He did not suggest adding more Council members to each committee, but he did recommend they include one member from a relevant citizen board or commission. He also proposed that committees not take public testimony.

After 20 minutes of discussion about the mayor’s committee appointments, Council Member Pio Renteria, who had been named to the Housing and Planning Committee, offered to step down so that “people who really have that burning desire” could take his place.

“I’m just really glad that there’s so much interest in housing, especially affordable housing and the problems we’re facing,” he said.

Tovo politely declined his “very generous” offer, reiterating that she hoped Council would reconfigure the committees in the near future. In the meantime, she said, she is going to continue crafting housing policy, regardless of what committee she sits on.

“But I do think that as a policy we should address how we select committees,” she said.

Council ultimately approved the appointments 6-1-3, with only Council Member Delia Garza in opposition and Tovo, Kitchen and Council Member Alison Alter abstaining.

Photo by John Flynn.

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