City Hall Hustle: Making Sausage Without a Map

Transparency's not what you see, but what you see through

It hasn't been a banner year for transparency in government.

Beginning with the KeyPoint disaster and culminating with the city's head-in-the-sand approach to corruption allegations in the Fleet Services department, there's no dearth of less-than-confidence-inspiring decisions at 301 W. Second this summer. In between, we've seen other similarly questionable decisions (abandoning competitive bidding for the contract to recycle the city's waste stream) and actions that, while opaque, don't sink to the same level (the machinations over Formula One racing, which largely occurred at the state level; for more, see "Austin at Very High Speed.")

Another potential example landed in the Hustle's inbox the other day: an anonymous jeremiad from someone angered that council's June 30 Public Health and Human Services committee meeting was blacked out from Channel 6. A mildly strange decision, considering the contentiousness of the topic: funding for social service contracts. Was this the latest example to add to the sorry list?

Not exactly, claims committee chair Randi Shade. "We weren't trying to keep secrets. We didn't ask for Channel 6 to record that; we didn't really want that because we were just trying to have a free-flowing work session. ... We wanted it to be as candid a conversation as possible."

The session was the first step in a potentially far-reaching realignment of how the city awards social service contracts, the largely paltry funding (some $18 million of the $615 million general fund) bestowed on agencies working with the city's neediest. Currently, the city looks at 14 categories of need – unprioritized criteria including food, housing, substance abuse treatment, education, job training, etc. – when making piecemeal approval of individual contracts. Following some back and forth at last week's meeting ("It was clearly an example of making sausage, because we were all over the map," says Shade), the committee seems to have settled on broader categories and a prioritization process for future contracts. "The council members came up with four themes: housing, food, employment, and social/functional skills," says Bob Corona, senior management analyst with the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department.

"Right now we have about 55 or so social service contracts," Corona continues. "The way it's done, we come to the council meetings on Thursday and ask them to approve a particular contract, a particular nonprofit. And there seemed to be some discussion about instead of going with a particular nonprofit, going with a particular theme, and developing contracts that respond to those particular themes in those four areas." Selection of the four topics was guided by agreement on the committee (Council Members Shade, Mike Martinez, and Laura Morrison) that helping citizens achieve self-sufficiency is their main goal.

The changes being considered won't transpire in the 2010-2011 budget currently under consideration; a preliminary timeline has council wrapping up the conversation later this year and competitively bidding the contracts out early next year, giving ample leeway to service organizations that want to participate. And Shade does see the contracts as being competitively bid. "Contracts have not been competitively rebid since most people can remember. We're talking in the Nineties. A lot of organizations feel like, 'If we haven't gotten funding in the past, how do we ever get a chance to apply?'" She applauds several city-funded orgs but says, "I'm not sure it's really been examined in over 10 years, and probably closer to 15 years. The world's changed a lot since then.

"We're contracting for services. They ought to make some connection to what it is the city's doing in terms of its business. We're not a foundation who's giving grants for great things we'd love to see get done. ... We need to know what the return on that investment is; there needs to be a competitive process so it's not just an entitled grant."

It's still early going on the changes: Other topics the committee touched on, like prioritizing preventative services vs. ongoing care and emergency vs. stabilizing needs, still need to be further fleshed out, along with getting the most for the city's money. "It's still a work in progress," says Corona. "We're really still trying to get through what exactly it is they're looking for and what exactly we can come up with to respond to their direction."

A staff briefing is scheduled for next week, with the PHHS committee tentatively scheduled to meet again July 23. Again, Shade reiterates that the Channel 6 preemption was because "we had not gotten very far, and we just really have to have these discussions," especially in light of Texas' Open Meetings Act, which prevents a quorum from discussing official business. While the members attempted to move the conversation forward in other ways, like communicating through their staff members, she said the approach was wanting. "Clearly, we weren't giving staff the direction that they need."

With Open Meetings rules handcuffing council collaboration, do we need a little less transparency at City Hall?

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City Council, Randi Shade, Health and Human Services

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