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Conduct of meetings is going to change – and change again

Wednesday, September 1, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Just as Austin’s most civically engaged citizens – including some new to the process – have gotten used to phoning in their comments on the City Council agenda, the rules are changing. In addition, Council will be considering new rules for participation once it learns what options are available.

In March 2020, Gov. Greg Abbott suspended some rules of the Texas Open Meetings Act to help slow the spread of Covid-19. Now Abbott has lifted that order, reinstating all the rules of the law, as of today.

Council and other governmental bodies will not be allowed to continue to meet on an entirely virtual basis and most who wish to speak will be required to show up in person. Assistant City Attorney Caroline Webster told Council that members of the public would be able to speak through videoconference, but not on the phone.

The mayor, at least, must sit on the dais, and if he is to have a break from presiding over the meeting, the mayor pro tem or another Council member will need to be physically present.

Generally speaking, citizens wishing to speak to Council will need to register at the City Hall kiosk at least 15 minutes before Council meets. Since Abbott issued his order on the open meetings law, those wishing to speak have been able to register online. That has created an extra burden for City Clerk Jannette Goodall. She told Council at Tuesday’s work session that she has spent about 15 hours before each Council meeting cleaning up the online registration – and that doesn’t count all the hours her staff works to integrate the names into the city’s regular signup system. That can’t continue, she said.

“Online registration – it may be working for you all, but I can tell you it is not working for us. Because it is a nightmare, compiling that data.”

Goodall said she had reached out to the city’s information technology people and learned that they would need additional resources to integrate the online system into the city’s kiosk system. The IT people have concerns about such a project, mainly from a security standpoint, she said.

Pending any special called meetings before then, there won’t be new rules before the next regularly called meeting on Sept. 30.

Information Technology Manager Kory Ellis told Council that the city’s libraries would most likely be able to allow public video testimony from a Webex link. Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Steve Adler both said they would like members of the public to be able to testify using their cell phones. But that could create security issues for the city.

Ellis also suggested that a vendor that has been working with the city may be working on a program that would allow videoconferencing. However, he was not sure how long it would take before such a program would be available.

City Manager Spencer Cronk told Council that staff would work to provide a memo by the end of next week outlining information gathered to deal with the testimony issues. “There will be some updates, but it will also be what remaining questions and issues we are looking into, some general time frame in which we might be able to give you answers. So just to manage your expectations, we’re not going to be able to answer all these questions, but … we should be able to outline some of these key themes that we are hearing and what avenues we might be pursuing to provide clarity to Council on a path forward,” he said.

Along the lines of managing expectations, Goodall warned that what Council was asking for could end up requiring additional staff and costing the city a lot of money. After hearing each Council member express a desire to provide the public with the easiest possible way to give testimony, Goodall said, “I appreciate that you think I can solve all of these problems … I can’t, so let me say that first of all.” She noted that Council would probably have to direct the city manager to provide more resources to facilitate public testimony, pointing out that “there are things that are outside of my control. Second, we as staff completely understand the concern with Covid, because you are talking to probably four people who have been here from day one. So we completely get it.”

Goodall also said she was not aware of any other city that was trying to come up with a way for citizens to speak through videoconferencing.

Council discussed whether to continue the current practice of having groups of people address Council on non-zoning issues at the beginning of the meeting and on zoning issues in the afternoon. While it was clear most members would support continuing that process, the details remained unclear.

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