Council: Hilton Honeymoon

The new City Council begins its reorganization

The new City Council is still in the Janu­ary honeymoon stage, with no decisions to be made before Jan. 29, and at this writing sojourning at the Downtown Hilton for orientation with city staff – of course, they'll have to relearn where all the bathrooms are when they return to City Hall. (In an early blow to "transparency," the orientation is not being narrowcast or archived on Channel 6.) State legislators learn "How a Bill Becomes a Law" (i.e., months of private backroom meetings, negotiation, and compromise, leading to grandiose rhetoric on the Capitol floor in the last three weeks of session, followed by members pushing their colleagues' electronic vote buttons). Council members are learning "How a Resolution Becomes an Ordinance" (backroom meetings forbidden by order of the same Legislature, so members find out what's going on only in public meetings, get regularly blindsided by unexpected proposals, and brainstorm, negotiate, compromise, and vote on the wing).

It was amusing to see the members confounded (as reported in the Statesman) by Travis County Attorney David Escamilla's explanation of the open meetings laws, which sole incumbent CM Kathie Tovo (District 9) noted was in exact contradiction to the post-Escamilla Scandal practice at City Hall: "It is permissible to talk with up to 10 other members individually outside a meeting [the Statesman reports Escamilla directed] so long as it's either in small groups under six people [the new quorum number] or you're not sharing information about how others might vote with other members." That sounds like eminently reasonable advice – and exactly what had been the practice among the previous Council members before the heavy hand of the county attorney threatened the whole group with indictment for that long-traditional process (see "Open and Shut," Oct. 26, 2012).

At least one CM (Ora Houston, D1), was sufficiently confused by Escamilla's instructions to suggest that members speak to one another only in public meetings (she should suggest that at the Lege). Another work-in-progess is for everybody to get more familiar with the Council "message board," still a seldom-used communication utility (austincouncilforum.org). As of Wednesday, only Ann Kitchen (District 5) had grabbed that bullhorn, to make a few suggestions about the re-structuring proposal.

Beyond this continuing conundrum, the main order of early business is the proposal before Council to revise the meeting and decision structure. Initiated by Mayor Steve Adler, the draft proposal would increase the number of Council committees, require most ordinances to be heard first by a committee before reaching Council, and hold most public hearings before those committees instead of the full Council. The intent, said the mayor, is to provide earlier public input and reduce the length of formal Council meetings. The plan also calls for Council to meet more often (weekly rather than biweekly) and to move some matters (e.g., executive sessions) outside the public meeting cycle. Emergency items would still be able to be placed on the Council agenda by a group of four Council members; but in theory the vetting by committee would shorten the full agendas.

It may well be wishful thinking. Advocates disappointed at committees (or commissions) commonly want to re-plead their cases before the full Council; and every Council witness wants his full three minutes, even if to repeat everything argued by his predecessors, at whatever hour.

Council is hoping that public feedback will help refine the details; Austinites are encouraged to provide such at the "SpeakUpAustin!" website (www.speakupaustin.org/discussions). The site includes the proposed changes, a flow chart for potential ordinances, and a list of new committees under consideration. Council is planning a public hearing on the changes for Thursday, Jan. 22 and a potential vote on Jan. 29 – although curiously, the closing date on public comments is currently listed as Feb. 7.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council 2015, Open Meetings, David Escamilla

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