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Public Safety Commission considers how to restructure its partnership with Council

Friday, August 7, 2020 by Jessi Devenyns

The Public Safety Commission is working with City Council Member Jimmy Flannigan to offload some of its oversight duties in favor of becoming more of an advisory body.

“We are particularly ill-suited for oversight,” Commissioner Rebecca Webber said at the commission’s Aug. 3 meeting.

Webber sent a letter to Council members Greg Casar and Jimmy Flannigan on June 18 stating that the commission needs to be disbanded due to the impression that “the very existence of the Public Safety Commission has given the appearance over the years that Council abdicates some of its oversight of APD to us.” She added, “The overlapping and similarly named Public Safety Committee and Public Safety Commission are quite confusing and should not work at cross purposes.”

In an attempt to clear up some of the confusion, Flannigan told the Austin Monitor that he and Casar will meet with Webber and Commissioner Rebecca Gonzales before the commission’s next meeting to hammer out the committee’s and the commission’s next agendas, as well as schedule a regular conversation between the groups. The Public Safety Commission will not be disbanded.

At the Public Safety Commission meeting, Webber explained that as a volunteer commission that meets two hours a month, she and other members of the commission are not equipped to provide the supervision necessary to ensure city staffers are fulfilling Council ordinance mandates related to public safety. She said it would be more beneficial to have city departments report back to the Public Safety Committee, which is composed of Council members.

Flannigan agreed, telling the Monitor, “The Council committees work best when we are performing an oversight function for policies and direction that have already been adopted by the whole Council.” He clarified that since the committee’s work follows a ruling made by the full dais, it offers an ideal forum to make sure that staff implementation follows Council’s intent and allows for the language in a resolution to be adjusted if intent and implementation do not align.

He suggested to commissioners that the body may be better suited to serve as a platform to receive public comment. The Public Safety Committee does not take public comment as it operates in a work session format.

Flannigan also explained that as an advisory body, the commission may serve a research function to help Council gather information and explore public safety issues it is interested in tackling. The commission will still have the ability to deliberate and make recommendations.

While commissioners agreed that these tasks were appropriate for the volunteer body, Webber said that the process of exploring public safety issues is a “hodgepodge.” She noted that the timing of items on the commission’s agenda does not necessarily come into line with Council deliberations. Furthermore, she said that the communication between the bodies can be lost in translation and that recommendations can be left unimplemented.

To remedy this dynamic, Flannigan proposed having a more direct link between the Public Safety committee and commission to streamline the conduit of information. He said changing that relationship with the Public Safety Commission will require more coordination and continuing conversation between the bodies.

Flannigan told the Monitor he would like to see a change in the relationships between the boards and commissions and Council. “I think we ask a lot of our volunteer commissioners and we don’t do a good job of ensuring the work that they do is going to move substantive policy.”

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