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Thursday, December 13, 2018 by Jack Craver
Council ponders ways to make meetings shorter, less confusing
As part of its ongoing efforts to make government more efficient and productive, City Council is discussing potential changes to how meetings are run.
The conversation was kicked off by the city’s CFO Elaine Hart, who highlighted a number of ways Council could make things easier for the city employees who staff Council meetings.
The heads of city departments and other staff who may be called upon by Council during a meeting often don’t know when an item related to their department will be taken up. As a result, staffers may spend hours waiting – sometimes late into the night – while Council deals with other business. Citizens who come to Council meetings to speak on items also languish in the audience for hours.
“If we could get a heads-up during the meetings, that would help staff and the citizens who are there and maybe signed up for items,” suggested Hart.
Hart also recommended Council develop a clear policy about what to do about meetings that run past 10 p.m. While the meetings are scheduled to end at that time, Council members often vote to extend the meeting to get through a lengthy agenda.
Even if a Council meeting does go into overtime, it would be helpful to staff if they knew that Council at least wouldn’t take up any new items after 10 p.m., said Hart. That way, staffers would know they could safely go home if their item hadn’t been taken up yet by 10.
Similarly, said Hart, staff members are often in the dark about amendments that Council members introduce on the dais.
Finally, Hart noted that Council could begin voting electronically. The city owns an electronic voting system that was purchased before the new 10-1 Council was seated four years ago, explained City Clerk Jannette Goodall. However, Council members have continued to do things the old way: raising their hands for the mayor to count.
The prospect of electronic voting elicited mixed reactions. Council Member Greg Casar said that such systems can be more confusing. Sometimes, during a convoluted discussion, when Council members are being asked to vote “for an amendment to an amendment,” being able to see whose hands are going up makes it easier to figure out which way you want to vote, he said.
“I didn’t really know which way to go when we first started (four years ago), but I’ve really come around to seeing the benefits of the way we do the hand votes,” he said.
Council Member Ann Kitchen said she didn’t think it was “an either-or.” Council members should continue raising their hands so the public can see how they’re voting, but it might be easier for staff to record the votes if they are also entering their votes electronically. Council Member Leslie Pool liked that idea as well.
Council Member Delia Garza suggested Council consider holding public testimony on different days than when Council takes the issues up, in order to offer greater predictability for citizens and Council members alike.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo noted that Council does occasionally set aside days for public hearings on major issues such as the budget, but said it is not an approach she wants to see applied more frequently.
“I think it is really critical that people be able to address us and talk to their Council at the time that we’re making those decisions,” said Tovo. “Separating it puts their questions and their comments and their concerns out of context with our decision. I would be concerned about the quality of our decision-making if we have the public have their conversation on another day.”
Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he wanted some kind of digital screen displaying the list of citizen speakers waiting their turn.
“I empathize with the mayor every time he’s out there seeking random hands in the audience,” he said. “Something to make it more 21st century would be useful.”
Pool disagreed. “There’s also something really humane about the fact that we’re looking out into the audience and we’re trying to identify a face that I think reminds everybody that we’re people,” she said.
Pool also stressed that things had gotten better. Council meetings have not been going late into the night as frequently as in past years, she said.
Kitchen said she would support beginning meetings earlier – at 9 a.m. Pool said that would simply lead to staff having to come in to work earlier to prep for meetings.
“Trying to get everyone here right at rush hour doesn’t necessarily seem to help the traffic situation,” added Council Member Alison Alter.
However, she added, “I do think we could be more disciplined about starting on time.”
Mayor Steve Adler suggested that Council reconsider some of the ideas when it seats its new members in January.
Photo by John Flynn.
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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.