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Monday, June 7, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano
City Council makes plans for City Hall return
In news that will be welcomed by those who have grown tired of staring at digital grids of local officials, City Council members have begun to make plans to hold in-person meetings again.
Though there is no firm date, and no clear plan for how they will return to the physical dais, Council members discussed their options at Tuesday’s work session and emerged with a tentative plan to return to the corporeal world in some form at some point in July.
The news was welcomed by City Clerk Jannette Goodall, who has implemented virtual meetings during the pandemic.
“From what I’m hearing, the majority of Council is interested in coming back,” she said. “For us, logistically, full in-person Council meetings reduces our workload and our stress, so we are actually looking forward to having you all back.”
From her side of things, Goodall emphasized that there was a lot of flexibility in terms of how in-person meetings could take place. She said that, if necessary, the numbers of community members allowed in the chamber can be limited and socially distanced. Goodall also explained that staffers could still appear virtually, or wait in another area of City Hall until they needed to speak, if that was their preference. In addition, she said, her office could accommodate Council members who needed to occasionally join meetings remotely once in-person meetings resume.
However, she noted that a hybrid meeting that included video testimony from the public would be more complicated. Currently, due to the emergency order that is in place, audio testimony is allowed during meetings. When the order is lifted, people participating remotely would have to do so via video, which would require crucial participation from public libraries, which Goodall explained will not yet be ready in July.
The shape public testimony will take during non-virtual meetings has yet to be determined. During the pandemic, testimony has generally been taken in two chunks, in the morning and later in the afternoon, prior to zoning cases. Mayor Steve Adler said he appreciated the new system was more efficient, saying it was a reason meetings had not run so late over the past year.
Council Member Mackenzie Kelly advocated to keep the newer system of grouping testimony moving forward. She said she has heard that the old system was a barrier to participation, requiring a whole day’s commitment, unlike the scheduled blocks of time.
Council Member Kathie Tovo did not disagree with that benefit, and acknowledged the change has made City Hall more accessible, but warned against losing the benefit of hearing testimony along with Council discussions in addition to retaining blocks of scheduled testimony.
“I hope that whatever system we land on will continue to preserve the opportunity for people to provide testimony right before the Council takes up an item,” Tovo said, noting that Council members cannot ask questions or engage in further dialogue about testimony when people have left the virtual meeting. “I’ve seen a greater impact from testimony when the information is conveyed to those decision-makers at the time they are about to have that conversation.”
Council ended its discussion last week without a blueprint for how meetings will be held in July, though the majority of Council members seemed ready to return to City Hall. Adler suggested the rest of the discussion could take place online, or through memos, as they get ready to go back to physical meetings.
“I think we are in an adjustment period, and I think there are some things we have pioneered over the last 18 months that we will carry forward with us into the new normal, but I’m also keenly aware that we are in another adjustment period,” Council Member Leslie Pool said. “In my mind, I’m framing our reintegration as how we get back to the normality we’re all anxious for.”
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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.