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Council moves toward changing meeting rules

Wednesday, April 19, 2017 by Jo Clifton

City Council members took a significant step Tuesday toward revising the way they conduct meetings as well as the time frames for scheduling business on the agenda in the hope that they can reduce the number of hours spent sitting on the dais.

They also indicated a desire to cut back on the hours of citizen comment. They did not vote on any of the items, because they were in work session, but indicated their preferences.

According to statistics gathered by city staff, council members spent approximately 557 hours at Council meetings and work sessions in 2016, not including budget work sessions, which added another 75 hours.

During 33 Council meetings, there were 2,386 citizens who signed up wishing to speak to Council, 1,571 not wishing to speak and 775 donating time to those who were speaking. Of the 348.5 hours Council spent in Thursday meetings, 45 percent of the time, or 158 hours, was consumed by speakers, according to data gathered by staff.

A staff committee working on the thorny questions surrounding Council meeting “pain points,” starting with the length of meetings, suggested reducing the amount of time speakers may donate to other speakers.

Currently, each speaker may speak for three minutes of his own time and receive 12 minutes from others donating their time for a total of 15 minutes each. The first 20 speakers are allowed three minutes, and each subsequent speaker is limited to one minute.

The committee, led by Office of the City Manager Chief of Staff Ray Baray, recommended that Council reduce the time that may be donated to either two minutes or one minute per person. In addition, it recommended that the number of speakers allowed to donate to one person be reduced from four to two.

The staff committee also compiled statistics related to the March 2 meeting, which lasted 14 hours and eight minutes. During that meeting, Council spent 285.63 minutes, or 34 percent of the meeting, discussing zoning items and listening to 27 speakers. Those 27 speakers spoke for 126 minutes because an additional 15 members of the audience donated time to them.

During that same meeting, 60 minutes was spent on public hearings, 139 minutes – or 16 percent of the meeting – on non-zoning items Council pulled from the consent agenda; and 156 minutes was spent on items pulled from the consent agenda that were not items from Council, according to data compiled by the staff.

Mayor Steve Adler said he would support changing the rules on donating time so that no speaker would have more than seven minutes to speak on any one item. Council Member Leslie Pool said she would also support that change.

Staff also recommended eliminating the preliminary agenda and posting a final agenda on the Friday two weeks before a Council meeting. Addenda would be reserved for either emergency items or time-sensitive items, depending on how staff decides to write the new rules. Also, at Adler’s suggestion, the rules would no longer be part of a city ordinance. Instead, they would simply be rules by which Council would operate – and thus presumably easier to change.

Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo objected to the early deadline. “We have a lot of deadlines,” she said. “I do not see this as a huge timesaver.”

Tovo pointed out that Council generally has granted postponements in order for people to better understand proposals. “And I think it ties our hands at times when we need to act fast,” she said.

Council Member Ann Kitchen said that, for her, amendments that come forward at the last minute are the bigger problem. On major issues, she said, there should be deadlines for posting of amendments – not on the day of the Council meeting and not from the dais.

Council members Delia Garza and Ellen Troxclair both said it was unfair to Council staff for items to be posted on the Friday prior to the Council meeting. Garza said her staff often had to work through the weekend in order to be prepared to discuss the items on Monday.

Council Member Alison Alter suggested that they try the proposal without codifying it, but no one seemed to support that and it wasn’t clear how that would work.

Staff also recommended eliminating time certain for briefings, the Austin Housing Finance Corporation and zoning – though under the recommendation, zoning discussion items would continue to have a 2 p.m. time certain, and public hearings would continue to have a 4 p.m. time certain. Council would then have more flexibility to bring those other items up during the meeting, thereby eliminating the “dead” time that sometimes occurs as Council is waiting for an item that has a time certain.

Tovo was particularly worried about the impact of the proposed rules change on zoning and the planning staff’s ability to do all the things they have to do in the prescribed time period. “I think we should think through the zoning piece,” she said.

Planning and Zoning Department Assistant Director Jerry Rusthoven explained that his staff has to prepare notices for zoning changes several weeks in advance already and this could make things more complicated and more expensive. “Staff is concerned this will lead to more postponements,” he said.

The final meeting in June, Adler said, should not include any first postings of items from Council. “We can postpone items until the last meeting; there just won’t be any new items,” he said.

Pool said she agreed, adding that the same rule should apply to the final meeting in December; Adler concurred.

Council has discussed its time problems on several previous occasions and spent about 90 minutes discussing the proposed changes at Tuesday’s work session.

Photo by John Flynn.

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