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Tension surrounds Council rules changes

Friday, February 10, 2017 by Jo Clifton

There were some tense moments Thursday as City Council worked through the ramifications of two innocuous-sounding items on its agenda about Council procedures.

Two years ago, when everyone on the dais was new to city government except Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, Mayor Steve Adler took on the task of appointing Council committees. That was fine at the time, said Tovo, but she and Council members Ann Kitchen and Leslie Pool made it clear during Thursday’s discussion that Council members should choose their own committees and that the committees should pick their own chairs.

Since then, Council and staff – and possibly citizens who like to stay involved with city government – have concluded that there are too many committees. Two years ago, the mayor appointed 10 committees, in part so that each Council member could be a chair.

Tovo stressed that the need for Council to make decisions about committees was no reflection on Adler personally. “It is, in my opinion, a divergence from what we had in the past,” she said. “This is a function of the Council,” she said, not the mayor.

If Council members are allowed to choose their own committees, it’s possible that some committees will not have enough members, and some may have too many. Tovo emphasized that she thought that it would not be that difficult for them to decide among themselves who would serve on what committee.

After a morning discussion, Kitchen forced a vote on paring down the 10 committees to just five.

The remaining committees are Audit and Finance, Mobility, Austin Energy Utility Oversight, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Planning. Council voted unanimously for those committees, eliminating the Public Utilities Committee, the Planning and Neighborhoods Committee – which was combined with Housing – and committees on public safety, open space and environment, and economic opportunity.

Each committee, except Austin Energy, will likely have five members, according to backup documents for Thursday’s meeting. The Austin Energy committee is a committee of the whole Council.

Amy Everhart, an aide to Adler who also worked for former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, said that when there was a problem about who would serve on what committee when Leffingwell was mayor, it was relatively easy to assign committee members by seniority. However, she pointed out that there is little seniority on this Council because most of them were elected at the same time in 2014.

Pool wanted to go through the exercise of finding out who wanted to serve on each committee during Thursday’s meeting. The mayor objected because the meeting was not posted for those decisions. Pool persisted anyway and read off a list of which Council members wanted to serve on which committees.

Adler said they could discuss that at next Tuesday’s work session.

An item related to the appointment of task forces was considerably more contentious, with Council Member Delia Garza arguing that the mayor’s decision to create task forces and appoint task force members without Council approval seemed to be a violation of the city charter.

Garza pointed out that Adler had responded to community concerns about a police shooting by announcing that he would create a task force on institutional racism. While she said she applauded the work of the committee, she believes that the charter would not allow Adler to create a task force on his own if city staff were then required to work with the task force.

Garza noted that the police chief and other city staff members are involved in task force work. Taxpayers pay their salaries, she said, so Council members should be involved in deciding about the creation of task forces. Garza said people believe that Council members can appoint members to task forces and that several have called her office to find out whether she can appoint them. They’re disappointed when they discover that she can’t.

Even though Adler argued that he did not require those staff members to be at his task force’s meetings, several of his colleagues appeared unconvinced. Adler later told the Austin Monitor that members of the task force were raising funds privately to fund the group’s activities.

Staff will now study the issue, along with questions about committee appointments as well as ways to speed up Council meetings and bring those ideas back for Council consideration.

Although several task forces were created when Leffingwell was mayor, Everhart said she had asked the Law Department for help in finding out how those task forces were created. She said they were unable to find any such Council resolutions.

When these items come back to Council, it will be considering whether to start meetings earlier, have earlier deadlines for submitting items to Council and several other changes.

One of those changes relates to when people can sign up to speak on an item. One option Council will consider is cutting off sign-ups at the time an item is called. Tovo told her colleagues that it would be a bad idea, given how difficult it is to get to City Hall and the fact that people may not realize the significance of an item until Council is discussing it.

Zenobia Joseph, who told the Monitor she had come to the Council meeting for another item, also voiced strenuous objections. Joseph said that former Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe had allowed speakers to sign up at any time before an item came up for a vote. However, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt changed the rule so that no one may sign up after an item has been called. That has made it more difficult for citizens to participate, Joseph said.

Council will also be considering whether to allow only two people to donate time to a speaker for a total time of nine minutes instead of the current rule, which allows four people to donate time for a total of 15 minutes. It will be up to the city manager and her staff to come back with options for changing the rules.

Photo by John Flynn.

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