City Council Convenes: Meeting To Meet x 2
Council work session previews council meeting
A relatively brief, largely uncontroversial City Council agenda usually isn't the focus of much official scrutiny. But that's not the case this week, with council scheduling a public work session – the first of many likely – the day before its regular meeting, as a result of the ongoing City Hall open meetings controversy.
Wednesday afternoon, council held a work session encompassing all 49 items on Thursday's council agenda. As in a regular meeting, the council could break to discuss legal matters privately in executive session; unlike regular meetings, with no action on items planned, citizen input was not allowed.
Fittingly, the meeting opened with a discussion of how to codify the work sessions. While Sheryl Cole offered that work sessions regularly occur Wednesday afternoons the week of a council meeting, City Manager Marc Ott implored council to "refrain from making any final decisions" while staff sorted out posting issues.
In recent years, council has used separately convened work sessions to give the council members extra breathing room on large issues – like annual budget discussions – that, if taken up in detail along with the rest of the regular agenda, would overwhelm everything else. However, Mayor Lee Leffingwell called this week's gathering in response to the ongoing review by the Travis County Attorney's Office of whether the practice of council members meeting regularly with one another, in numbers less than a quorum, constitutes a violation of the Texas Open Meetings Act. Travis County Attorney David Escamilla received a complaint from ChangeAustin co-founder (and council irritant) Brian Rodgers alleging that the practice creates violations – allegations which have received a persistent push from online outlet the Austin Bulldog and on the editorial page of the Austin American-Statesman. Council held a private discussion with attorneys late last month to discuss the nonquorum meetings; since then, presumably on the advice of legal staff, the two- or three-person meetings of council members have been suspended.
As for the actual nuts and bolts of this week's City Council meeting, primary items of interest pertain to local power usage and the recent freeze-related rolling blackouts, which mysteriously affected some neighborhoods for several hours while sparing others completely. A 10:30am briefing from Austin Energy is scheduled to address its rolling blackout protocol, with General Manager Larry Weis in the hot seat. Ample blame will also likely be directed at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas. There are two more briefings scheduled for the morning: what's being billed as "Austin/Travis County Year at a Glance: Fiscal Year 2009-2010" and a briefing on Municipal Utility District policy.
Another electrifying initiative is Item 26, which would use the city's power under the Texas Utilities Code to temporarily suspend a rate increase from electric delivery company Oncor. "Oncor has requested a total increase in revenue of $350 million, which is an estimated 12.7 percent increase in state-wide residential delivery rates ... about $5.00 more per month for an average residential customer," reads the item's backup material. The city can delay the increase 90 days for study, until May 13; city staff recommends council indeed suspend the rate request.
Additionally, Item 29, from Mike Martinez, Randi Shade, and Laura Morrison, wades back into sound permitting, just in time for nontraditional venues looking to offer music during South by Southwest. The item – amending code relating to sound amplification and temporary events and promised in the wake of the Rainey Street venue contretemps – marks the return of temporary sound permits, which were issued last spring across town (and have since expired), albeit now such permits require a "temporary event impact plan" taking stage orientation, sound buffering and similar measures into account. Language in the item "declaring an emergency" would allow the changes to go into effect immediately.