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ANC calls on city to improve public participation, ethics rules

Wednesday, August 31, 2022 by Jo Clifton

The Austin Neighborhoods Council has issued a call for City Council to reform its rules for public participation, calling the current procedures for taking public input “anti-democratic practices that undermine public participation and trust,” according to ANC President Ana Aguirre.

ANC adopted a resolution last week urging Council and Council candidates to support 10 specific changes to make public participation easier and give citizens more time to consider major Council actions.

ANC member Barbara McArthur, who was involved in drafting the resolution, told the Austin Monitor the vote was in response to “frustration on the part of the public with participating in city government.” She noted that when Covid-19 kept people isolated, the city adopted rules for input that kept people waiting on the phone for hours, only to allow the speaker one minute. In addition, she complained that public input is not taken at the time Council is considering an item, but generally hours before Council votes on it.

On at least one occasion, McArthur said she called and was put on hold for two hours and never got to speak. The clerk on the other end of the line told her it would be better to address Council in writing.

“You’re in a cattle call and you’re lucky if they put you online for your one minute. And I think it makes it easier for the City Council when the public’s not there. They don’t have to look anybody in the face when they do certain things,” she continued. “People have a sense that there’s a loss of democracy.”

McArthur also said ANC perceives that applicants receive more favorable treatment than citizens and are able to speak at the time their item comes up and for a longer period of time. “A lot of the public feel that input from the public was not as important as input from special interests,” she said.

Here is a list of ANC’s proposed reforms:

1. Require Council to adopt and abide by Robert’s Rules of Order.
2. Require meetings to be run in a fair manner and allow challenges to the chair’s rulings to be appealed to a neutral parliamentarian.
3. Require all proposed major ordinances to be heard at publicly convenient, time-certain times.
4. Require equal and fair allocation of time among speakers before Council.
5. Require all substantive proposals to be in writing and released at least seven days in advance for major items and at least two days for minor items.
6. Require Council members to recuse themselves when close personal friends are before Council.
7. Establish an independent ethics commission with real power to effectively and fairly enforce the city’s ethics and campaign finance laws.

Aguirre said Council has important decisions to make and the public worries when those decisions are made late at night.

“We wanted to make sure that the Council takes into consideration the value of true community input,” she said. She cited one example of a decision (on vertical mixed-use zoning) that was made at an inconvenient time for community members. With so many things to do, Aguirre said perhaps they should consider having a special called meeting if Council is considering a very hot topic.

The final item on ANC’s list of changes involves the city’s Ethics Review Commission. The commission, which has very few powers, is appointed by City Council dictated by city code. ANC is critical of the fact that Council appoints the commission, though it’s not clear who else might have the authority to do it. Likewise, the city’s attorneys can only prosecute class C misdemeanors. While ANC wants tougher enforcement of ethics regulations, it’s not clear how that could happen.

“Austin needs to be a leader on ethics and public participation, not a slacker,” Aguirre noted.

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