The New Council

Tweaking the process

Things may get a little less weird and a little less longwinded at City Hall. Following a contentious, extended debate, City Council finally approved controversial changes to council meeting procedures.

The revisions, initially proposed Aug. 20 by Mayor Lee Leffingwell and Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez and approved last week, will move zoning hearings to 2pm instead of their previous 4pm start time – although cases can be postponed until after 4pm upon the request of two council members. Additionally, speakers wishing to sign up for one of the 10 citizen communication slots each meeting – during which a speaker can address the council on a topic of his or her choice – may only do so once every three council meetings, in order to allow time to a wider range of citizens. (If the available slots don't fill up within a week, the cit-comm "regulars" can add their names to a backup list to fill any vacancies.) The cit-comm clampdown has sparked controversy since it was proposed, although some protesters – like Infowars acolyte Ronnie "Reeferseed" Gjemre, who begins each diatribe by taking a gigantic pull off an imaginary joint, then exhaling a massive raspberry at the council – made a better argument for the rule changes than any policymaker ever could.

A less obvious but more momentous argument has roiled over the zoning change, from the Austin Neighborhoods Council listserv to council chambers. By reducing the number of staff presentations, council initially bumped up the zoning docket – the bulk of each meeting – by two hours. But disagreement led to a broken consensus on the dais (Laura Morrison initially dissenting), followed by a seldom seen reconsideration of the vote. The original language allowed for two council members to set an agenda item for a "time certain," so interested parties would know when to get to City Hall – but that change only applied to nonzoning items. Hoping to include zoning items, Morrison said making them eligible also would "really give a heads-up" to people who can't pry themselves away from work without knowing when an item is really going to be discussed. However, council voted on the item as-is, which passed 6-1, Morrison voting nay.

Randi Shade told the Chronicle that evenings are just as bad, if not worse, for zoning cases, hence her disagreement with Morri­son. "We've had plenty of folks let us know how difficult the evenings are for zoning cases," Shade said via e-mail, "especially from a child-care perspective. It seems that most working parents have regular childcare arrangements during work hours but not in the evenings. ... The bottom line is that no time of day seems especially convenient and the uncertainty of timing, regardless of posting time, is a huge burden."

However, later at the same meeting, "after the dinner break and a strong plea from Council Member Morrison, I agreed to go back and reconsider the item to allow for the two-hour zoning postponement option," Shade continued. "The same option already existed for any other items on the agenda. We'll see how it works, and if it all proves to be too problematic, we can make another change." The reconsidered motion, with zoning cases eligible for the "time certain" designation, passed unanimously.

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City Council, Laura Morrison, Randi Shade

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