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With public comment procedures in flux, two dozen zoning cases postponed

Wednesday, October 6, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council heard many fewer zoning cases than expected last week after city staff decided to postpone the cases because of a surprise reinterpretation of public meeting participation rules. 

When staffers originally gave public notice for 24 zoning cases scheduled for Council’s Oct. 1 agenda, the notices said people must testify in person; that was the city’s interpretation at the time of Gov. Greg Abbott’s order ending pandemic exceptions to public meeting rules, which permitted phone testimony. Before the pandemic, people had to come to City Hall to speak or offer comment via videoconference from a public library computer.

But now, because the city’s Law Department reinterpreted Abbott’s order and decided to allow phone testimony last month, staffers renotified the cases “out of an abundance of caution,” Jerry Rusthoven with the Housing and Planning Department told the Austin Monitor, and to give more people a chance to tell Council what they think about the proposed zoning changes.

This was unusual, Rusthoven said: “I don’t think I’ve ever postponed 24, except maybe during a tornado warning or something like that that’s happened a couple times.”

While the renotification of the zoning cases may have inconvenienced those planning to speak at last Thursday’s Council meeting, Rusthoven said that the new setup, with phone and in-person testimony, will allow greater public participation. 

“We definitely have heard from people that they appreciate that opportunity just to pick up the phone and call in and not have to take a half a day off work or do whatever,” Rusthoven said. “They have other things going on in their life like a job, taking care of children, those kinds of things.”

The rules extend to Council meetings in general as well as the city’s various board and commission meetings. 

While Council’s Oct. 14 meeting is going to be packed with over 30 zoning cases, it’s not a record. Said Rusthoven, “53 or 54 is the record.” 

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