COVID-19 Sends Council Meeting Into Virtual Reality
City Hall to perform open government while maintaining distance
By Austin Sanders,
1:45PM, Fri. Mar. 20, 2020
The Austin City Council will meet on Thursday, March 26, but it will be unlike any meeting the body has ever held.
In accordance with local and state orders prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people in a room, only seven people will be allowed in the Council Chambers at City Hall, a room that has a capacity of 250 and occasionally hits that limit when contentious items are debated.
But at the next meeting – and likely for the next several – only Mayor Steve Adler, five councilmembers, and City Manager Spencer Cronk will attend the meeting in person. The five remaining CMs will participate remotely. (At the March 26 meeting, CMs Greg Casar, Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen, and Kathie Tovo will attend in person). City Attorney Anne Morgan will also attend the meeting remotely.
It’s unclear at this point if Council will alternate who attends in person, or if Adler (or Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza) or Cronk will be required to attend every meeting (assuming they are healthy, of course). A city spokesperson tells the Chronicle that CMs can decide for themselves if they want to attend in person.
Council will also only be acting on consent items – for the most part, those dealing with city contracts and financial obligations that must be authorized. All discussion items and public hearings will be postponed. This means we are likely to see much more debate on the Council message board (the pace of posts has already increased significantly this week), as CMs try to work out compromises on resolutions, ordinances, and other items that would typically be debated live from the dais.
For an example of what this will look like, check out the message board thread for CM Jimmy Flannigan’s “SXSW Resilience Plan” resolution. Since Flannigan first posted about the plan on March 11, other CMs have posted 10 replies with suggestions on how the resolution could be changed. Presumably, the resolution could still be ready as planned for the consent agenda on March 26.
Other changes will be implemented as well. The meeting will begin at 2pm, instead of the usual 10am start (although let’s be honest, few meetings have actually begun at 10am), and public comment will be restricted to audio only – no in-person speakers will be allowed. Speakers must register online by noon on Wednesday, March 25, and the public comment period will be held at the start of the meeting on Thursday.
Speakers will receive instructions via email after they register. They will need to call into the public comment line no later than 1:30pm, and they will be placed into a queue. Later callers will not be accepted. If you intend to call and want to share media as part of your comment, email attachments to City.Clerk@austintexas.gov.The final change coming to Council’s Thursday meeting: Media will not be allowed in the chamber. But your Chronicle team will still be watching what those elected rascals are up to. Come along with us as we prepare to enter a new world of City Hall coverage. It’s going to be an interesting time.