Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUT
Wednesday, September 22, 2021 by Audrey McGlinchy, KUT

City backtracks, now says people can testify by phone at public meetings

The proverbial phone line had been cut. Now, it’s being restored.

Over the summer, the city of Austin said residents would no longer be able to phone in to public meetings as they’d been doing during the pandemic. The change was allowed after Gov. Greg Abbott suspended parts of the Texas Open Meetings Act, which outlines how public meetings can be run.

When Abbott said the rules would go back into place starting in September, the city’s Law Department said people would have to return to giving testimony in person – that is, at City Hall.

“Members of the public are allowed to participate by videoconference, but not by teleconference,” Assistant City Attorney Caroline Webster told City Council members at a meeting last month. Without the ability to set up videoconferencing for the public, the city said that meant testimony was limited to in-person.

The city’s legal team is now reversing course, saying that’s not true.

The change was revealed in an internal memo sent to Council members by the city clerk earlier this month. In it, Jannette Goodall writes: “The Law Department recently informed us that audio testimony is a viable option.”

While it’s an option, it’s a costly one. In the memo, Goodall said continuing to offer virtual meetings, including phone testimony, would cost the city $540,000 a year. She does not explain why the legal team changed its reading of the law.

The memo was sent a week after the city held a Council meeting with in-person-only testimony for the first time since the pandemic began. In the weeks leading up to the meeting, Council members and citizens lamented what they said the public would lose by returning to in-person-only testimony, including the convenience of being able to testify from home, and said they felt a phone-in system made testifying more accessible.

“When we set up a situation that people can only participate in person, we’re excluding part of our population,” Council Member Ann Kitchen, who represents parts of South Austin, said at the time. “We’re putting them in a position where they have to choose between their individual circumstances and their own health, and their family’s, and their ability to talk to us.”

A city spokesperson told KUT the city made the change after realizing other Texas cities were continuing to allow phone testimony.

“After consulting with various other governmental entities around the state, we determined that offering the public the opportunity to continue to call in to meetings as they had been doing during the pandemic was acceptable under TOMA as long as in-person testimony was also being offered,” a city spokesperson wrote in an email.

The spokesperson would not provide more information about the change.

This story was produced as part of the Austin Monitor’s reporting partnership with KUT.

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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.

Office of the Austin City Clerk: This city department provides access to city documents, ensuring compliance with records-retention laws, and facilitating City Council's legislative process.

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