Public Downsizing

Reynolds Wants Public To Lay Off

The fact that Council- member Ronney Reynolds may have his eye on the mayoral throne should come as no surprise -- he's been jockeying for position for months now. Yet one wonders why a man with such seemingly small regard for the public would care to put himself in the hottest seat on the council. After all, it would require him to deal with what appears to be the least favorite part of his job -- those pesky people with their constant whining. Why must councilmembers be subjected to this weekly ranting from the public? Sure the people put the councilmembers there, and yeah, they pay their salaries, but they're just so... so... annoying.

If Reynolds does become the city's leader in 1997, he would run the council meetings. Perhaps that is what is driving him to change the rules of public engagement now. Reynolds, owner of an accounting firm, wants to run the city like a busi-ness, and to manage effectively, one must curtail needless distractions like public input. "This is not an Athenian democracy," Reynolds has said.

He wasn't kidding. At last week's meeting, Reynolds offered a proposal to start discussions to revamp the rules. He would eliminate Citizen's Communication from the regular Thursday council meetings. The councilmembers could vote to hear comments on special issues, but each side would be limited to a 30-minute presentation. This represents quite a departure from the current system, which allows public input on council matters until meeting's end.

As proof that he is not an absolute tyrant, Reynolds has made some concessions. His proposal gives the public a regular speaking slot from 4-7pm on Wednesdays, the day before the big show on Thursday. Each person would get their allotted three minutes to present his or her arguments to the council. If that is not enough time, one may return for another three-minute ration -- but not until the following Wednesday. Of course, it is doubtful that the full council would show on a Wednesday. No doubt councilmembers would take to drawing straws every week to decide which four (a quorum) would have to stay and baby-sit.

Needless to say, Reynolds' ideas did not go over well with the vigilant gadfly brigade (Robert Singleton, et al). For some strange reason, they think that because they are shareholders in this entity, they're entitled to more than three minutes a week. "Democracy can be so inconvenient," noted wry council regular Ricky Bird. "For someone to propose such a law is to bring into doubt the suitability of that person for public office."

But Reynolds said his proposal would better serve the public by allowing staff more response time. It would work like this: The public receives the agenda on Monday, allowing two days to compile information and prepare arguments. After Wednesday's public input, staff would provide council on Thursday with a synopsis of, and a response to, those arguments. The public could not rebut. The council would vote. Simple. Reynolds wants to do all the work for you.

Amazingly, the council took Reynolds' proposal seriously. Councilmember Gus Garcia especially: "I'm disturbed by the [public's] hostility," Garcia complained. He says it prevents him from "thinking." That helps explain some things, like his last-minute waffling addiction.

Councilmembers Jackie Goodman and Beverly Griffith see the potential in a procedural overhaul. While they don't agree with limiting input, they think the proposal could foster organization, allowing speakers certainty about their speaking time.

At Thursday's meeting, Robert Singleton said that whatever happens, the rules should be enacted as law, not as resolution. Singleton noted that our current mayor regularly ignores the current rules, as in throwing disruptive speakers out for consecutive council meetings and not allowing them to return. When the mayor protested that comment, Singleton said he had the rules right there with him, and he could reel off a dozen that the mayor has flouted. The mayor shut up.

Outrageous though his proposal may be, Reynolds chose a great time to bring it up. At the meeting, he got a chance to test his theory, and to his credit, his ideas won big. On his suggestion, the rancorous helmet law debate was limited to 30 minutes, with each side receiving 15 minutes. The scores of bicyclists who showed up organized a succinct, powerful presentation. Passion fell to the wayside. Logic prevailed. Each speaker expressed a well-developed point in a well-rounded argument.

The anti-helmeters' arguments were more eloquent without the usual abuse and vitriol. They offered statistics on how helmet laws have discouraged bicycling in other cities. They predicted that the law will be selectively enforced based on race, dress, etc. They challenged the council to do more to promote safety, such as creating more bike lanes and unblocked bike lanes. "We are not anti-helmet, but pro-bicycle and pro-safety," one speaker noted.

Interestingly, the pro-helmet forces presented a more scattered presentation. There was a mother who held a broken helmet in her hands, standing beside her scarred son, alive because of the helmet. They also noted that head injuries had decreased in cities with the law.

Goodman made a fruitless attempt to lower the fines from $100 to $50, and to create a mandatory bike-safety class for the ticketed. None of her colleagues seemed interested in the safety class, though, and when the council voted on whether to lower the fines, only Daryl Slusher joined Goodman in voting yes. Eric Mitchell abstained, and the rest of the council rejected it. Goodman proposed another amendment, to allow exemptions for those with medical conditions that prevent the wearing of helmets. The council unanimously approved that one.

The debate worked well, and councilmembers took pains to compliment the bicyclists' presentation. But let's not go overboard here. Of course it worked well. This was the culmination of weeks and weeks and weeks of debate. It's a relatively simple issue, and everything that can be said, has been. The format would not work so well for more complicated issues. Remember the vote on the Barton Creek PUD? It was during that debate last February, in which 600 or so public speakers showed up, that Reynolds slipped into the antechamber to watch a UT basketball game and play laptop solitaire.

Perhaps Reynolds figured there was no point in listening, since his mind was made up. Still, the crucial, logical arguments that night persuaded the swing vote, Garcia, to vote at the last-minute against the Barton Creek PUD agreement with the city. Had Reynolds' proposal been in place, the public would have been effectively distanced from the decision-making process, and Reynolds' side -- that of the lobbyists, the Chamber, and Jim Bob -- would have won.

That situation has played out similarly on other issues. On monumental votes, Garcia is the council's most common swing vote, and when he stops "thinking" to listen to the public, the side with the most impacted constituency usually wins.


Also last week, the council created a 17-member board of health care experts and patients to advise the council on whether the city's health care clinics should be privatized. Goodman sponsored an amendment to remove the city's two top-level staff members from the board and replace them with a member of the city employees' labor union and a representative of the HIV Planning Council. The removed staffers will join a team of six management officials who will provide information to the committee, but will not be able to vote. Mitchell and Reynolds abstained, and Todd voted no. Reynolds argued (surprise! surprise!) that a citizens' group should not be able to tell city staff what to do, but Slusher protested that that's precisely the reason why city staff is there.

Some people are starting to think Reynolds has a perverted sense of democracy, and often forgets that city officials, including himself, serve the public. Don't forget: This was the guy who four years ago delayed the enactment of the Save Our Springs water-quality ordinance, though the citizenry had passed it by a 2-1 majority. Though many viewed the delay as illegal, Reynolds held his ground, and developers had extra time to file under the weaker ordinance. Those with an interest in limiting democracy will want to check this future mayoral candidate out. He has what it takes.


This week in council: Council will vote on approving the privatization of the Austin Convention and Visitors' Bureau in the form of a five-year, $3.3 million annual contract to a private non-profit of hoteliers, Chamber wigs, and others, and on creating a committee to inform the public of the kaleidoscopic scenario in the electric utility industry.

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