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Council likely to tweak rules for public speakers

Wednesday, June 15, 2022 by Jo Clifton

City Council informally decided during Tuesday’s work session to change one of the rules for City Council meeting speakers. Starting at the July 28 meeting, speakers who sign up to address Council remotely about non-zoning items will be allowed to speak first, followed by in-person speakers.

City Clerk Myrna Rios explained that she has a three-page list of duties she and her staff must perform in order to facilitate speakers. That includes collecting the names and phone numbers of remote speakers and passing them on to a vendor, who then facilitates getting the speakers on the line. But a variety of problems arise when the remote speakers are forced to wait until after the in-person speakers, such as other phone calls interrupting the call or calls getting dropped. Having the remote speakers go first, she said, would make it easier both for the speakers and for her office.

At 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Rios told Council that 36 people had already signed up to speak about the $22 per hour living wage proposal on Thursday’s agenda. She pointed out that community members still had more than 24 hours to sign up on that and other items.

Rios told the Austin Monitor about the complex process she and her staff go through in order to prepare for a Council meeting, starting the Friday before the meeting. That includes preparing the online speaker signup form. The clerk’s staff sends all the information on speakers to a vendor in Boston after signup closes at noon on Wednesday. The clerk’s office prepares information in both English and Spanish on how the speakers can call back. While the number of requests for Spanish interpretation are small, she said, they do get such a request about 80 percent of the time. Many people provide their own interpreters.

Last week, Gus Peña, who regularly voices his opinions on city matters, told Council it needs to “get it together” because the public doesn’t know what’s going on in terms of addressing Council. “What happened to the idea of every speaker getting three minutes?” he asked. The mayor makes a decision each week about how much time speakers will get, depending on how many are signed up per topic and how many speakers overall have said they want to address Council.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter said she would prefer that Council return to having zoning speakers address Council as their individual items come up for consideration, rather than hearing all of the zoning speakers at one time. That would allow Council to focus on discussing zoning items. “There will be a trade-off,” she said. “We will be here much later,” adding, “I don’t believe we make good decisions” late at night.

“My biggest concern is when we delay some of these zoning items … people just walk out because they have a life … it doesn’t bother me either way,” Council Member Pio Renteria said, adding that he doesn’t mind staying up late. But as for the public, they want to know what’s going on but can’t stay up late enough to find out.

Council Member Mackenzie Kelly said she had been looking at how other councils receive input. San Antonio City Council, for example, will hold listening sessions, apart from Council meetings, in order to give people an opportunity to speak. Mayor Steve Adler said some Council members complain when they are unable to work in their offices because of too many hours spent in meetings. He said those extra listening sessions would not count as testimony before Council meetings. That would mean someone could speak at a listening session and then speak again at a Council meeting.

Last week, Council did not adjourn until after midnight. Council Member Paige Ellis said the latest she has been at a Council meeting was after 4 a.m.

All in all, it appears nothing much will change in terms of Council speakers in the near future.

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