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Jo Clifton is the Politics Editor for the Austin Monitor.
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Thursday, June 7, 2018 by Jo Clifton
Questions arise over CodeNEXT votes
Attorney Bill Aleshire has alerted Mayor Steve Adler that a constituent saw a problem with the new method of counting City Council votes at Tuesday’s work session on CodeNEXT.
That method required members to signal their support for an idea by raising one to five fingers for mild to enthusiastic support and a fist for no support.
Aleshire wrote in an email to the mayor and Council, “The problem raised by your constituent is that the finger vote by each member was not announced orally, and camera did not show how each member voted. We don’t know, yet, if each fist-to-5 finger vote is even going to be reflected in the minutes.”
It’s possible that the city clerk was keeping track of each vote finger for finger – but unlikely – and the unofficial transcript of the meeting shows the mayor counting like this: “I have a 5, a 4, a 5, a 3, a 5, a 5, a 3, 3, 4 and 4. Okay. I think that’s a pretty good general consensus.”
Council members Delia Garza and Greg Casar each expressed that the exercise, which related to policy statements rather than actual code, was a waste of time. Garza said she had more important things to do, namely getting ready for a trip on city business, and did not participate in the afternoon part of the meeting. Casar volunteered that he would give every item five fingers if it meant getting through the policy statements and moving on to the code.
In his email to the mayor, Aleshire wrote, “Your constituent wondered if this violates the Open Meetings Act. I have observed your lack of support for true transparency, but rather than immediately get legalistic about this issue, I thought I’d first ask you if you agree to the following basic principle, regardless of statutory requirements: During a Council meeting, The People should be able to observe, and the minutes should reflect, how every member of the Council votes on every vote taken, regardless of whether the method of voting is aye/nay or the cute fist-to-five-finger method.”
Adler responded, “The point is well taken. Regardless of whether or not there’s a legal duty. I’ll try to make that verbal indication of where folks are. Part of the purpose of the exercise is to daylight folks’ positions. It’s more in the nature of debate … folks expressing opinion thru a gesture … rather than votes. Votes will surely come later.”
Aleshire replied to Adler’s response that “voting is not discussion. And a work session with voting is not a work session.” Many people would see those policy discussions/votes as not very meaningful in the grand scheme of things.
Aleshire told the Austin Monitor that whether or not those votes are meaningful “depends on what they do or if any member of the Council tries to use those votes in the future – and then they sway a real decision in the future.”
The city’s website refers to Tuesday’s Council work session as a “meeting” and says that the Council plans to meet again on CodeNEXT on June 12 and 13. In order not to run afoul of the Open Meetings Act, it may have to go back to the usual procedure for voting and call the meetings what they are.
Curious about how we got here? Check out the Austin Monitor’s CodeNEXT Timeline.
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Key Players & Topics In This Article
Austin City Council: The Austin City Council is the body with legislative purview over the City of Austin. It offers policy direction, while the office of the City Manager implements administrative actions based on those policies. Until 2012, the body contained seven members, including the city's Mayor, all elected at-large. In 2012, City of Austin residents voted to change that system and now 10 members of the Council are elected based on geographic districts. The Mayor continues to be elected at-large.
Texas Open Meetings Act: The Texas law that requires government decision-making to be open to the public.