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How much would more remote participation cost the city?

Thursday, October 7, 2021 by Jo Clifton

Since March 2020, when Gov. Greg Abbott suspended certain requirements of the Texas Open Meetings Act to allow city officials to hold virtual meetings, the public has been allowed to participate by phone. Austin residents have participated in remote testimony with a good deal of enthusiasm.

At one meeting after the governor’s order expired, the Law Department advised City Council that it could no longer allow the hybrid public participation. Now, however, the lawyers have changed their minds and say such participation is legal, causing city staff to reschedule 24 zoning cases from last week’s meeting.

Last month, City Clerk Jannette Goodall told Council that she and the city’s technical specialists estimated it would cost $540,000 a year to continue accepting participation by citizens over the phone. She noted that a virtual meeting requires the work of six to 11 people.

According to Goodall, a minimum of eight to 10 staff members who are physically present at Council meetings manage logistics such as presentations and helping move staff and meeting participants to and from the main meeting panel. In addition, one full-time staff member from Communications and Technology Management is needed and two City Clerk staffers have the task of exporting and cleaning up online registration data, a task that can take 10-15 hours for each Council meeting, she said.

At this point, witnesses are not allowed to participate virtually in board and commission meetings. But Mayor Steve Adler and Council members Alison Alter, Greg Casar, Vanessa Fuentes and Kathie Tovo want to know how much it would cost to extend the choice of holding board and commission meetings virtually and allowing the public to participate by phone as well as in person.

Adler has posted a memo on the City Council Message Board noting that he and his colleagues would be sponsoring a resolution on next week’s agenda asking City Manager Spencer Cronk to advise them of the cost of a budget amendment to allow remote participation, not only at Council meetings but at all the city’s board and commission meetings.

In addition to the cost, the changes would require rewriting a certain portion of city code, Adler noted, which also comes with a cost.

Either way, the clerk has indicated that she would not advise changing how the public testifies, so that speakers will continue to speak in random order, not addressing agenda items as they are being discussed by Council.

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