The Austin Chronicle

City Hall Hustle: Look Who's (Not) Talking

Council considers changes to citizen communications

By Wells Dunbar, August 21, 2009, News

We've sure had some good times, citizen communi­ca­tions.

Among the cit-com high- and lowlights, off the top of the Hustle's head: Ronnie "Reeferseed" Gjemre's Ron Paul-powered rants against the police state; the atonal, confrontational warbles of CarolAnneRose Kennedy; and, of course, regularly irregular announcements from the late, transgendered face of "weird" local politics, Jennifer Gale. For years, City Council regulars or channel surfers flipping past Channel 6 could count on a hearty helping of "WTF?" from council's cit-com cast.

All that may be about to change.

This week, council takes up Item 42, a collection of reforms to the way meetings are run. The measure, proposed by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Mar­tinez, contains several welcome improvements – more on those later – but generating the most buzz is a proposal to rein in cit-com regulars. And unlike most sitcoms, there's no laugh track.

As cit-com currently works, at noon during each meeting, 10 three-minute slots are allotted for speakers wishing to speak on any topic of their choice. Registration opens at 9am, two weeks before the council meeting in question, and according to Leffingwell, the list fills quickly – "oftentimes in one minute from when it opens," he says. "We've had a few people dominate citizens communications to speak to us, to even sing to us, or whatever. I've heard complaints from people: 'You know, there are other people out there that might want to talk about things.'" However, Leffingwell continues, "people who aren't the 'professionals' – the ones who speak down here all the time and know how the game is played – they come down here to sign up, and there's no slots open." Item 42, by contrast, would allow citizens to speak during cit-com only once every four council meetings. In hopefully freeing up more spots and attracting new voices, "I view it as a process of opening up citizens communications to more people," Leffingwell says. He adds that citizens can still sign up to speak on any agenda item before the council "any time, and that will continue."

But all citizen communicators are not created equal. Environmental activist Paul Robbins is a sober, serious-minded semiregular, and relevant speakers like himself, or East­side activists PODER (or similar groups), would also be affected. Robbins shared with the Hustle e-mails between himself and Mike Martinez on the subject, in which he wrote, "The fact is that after a speech, I may have a city bureaucrat (as opposed to public servant) claim what I have said is not true. Under your proposal, I would not have a chance to rebut them for as long as a month." Martinez concedes the changes could keep speakers away from cit-com for weeks on end, especially if compounded by canceled council meetings. But he also says he'll suggest that speakers who've already used up their four-week allotment could talk if present in the chambers during cit-com or if the 10 slots aren't all filled. "I don't view this at all as limiting public input, as stopping free speech. Those are all sensational arguments to blow this thing into mammoth proportions."

The mayor and mayor pro tem do view the change as part of a holistic effort to streamline and improve meetings – an effort apparent ever since Mayor Leffingwell took office. "It's a fair statement," Leffingwell says, that he's run meetings in an expedited fashion. Wednesday work sessions are back, shortening Thursday meetings. Gone is the reading of board and commission appointees into the record. Similarly shortened is the reading of the consent agenda; whereas Will Wynn read the entire thing, Leffing­well now just notes the items pulled off the consent agenda for discussion. "That saves four or five minutes, maybe more," he says.

Item 42 contains other time-saving provisions: it pushes zoning cases, often the bulk of council's workload, up two hours earlier, from 4pm to 2pm – though any zoning item, including a consent item, may be postponed to a 4pm "time certain" setting at the request of two council members. It schedules no more than two council briefings each meeting, slashing the midafternoon PowerPoint purgatory. And Leffingwell says he intends to make good on his campaign promise to hold some meetings outside City Hall, although that will come with a fiscal impact; he's asked the city manager to get back to him with a price.

"The best public testimony and the best policy decision-making doesn't happen after midnight," Martinez says of the time-saving, business-oriented changes. But, for good or bad, what made for train-wreck TV on Channel 6 now won't happen at high noon either.

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