Public Notice: Government by Committee

Tonight's Town Hall: First step in a "New Way Forward"

Public Notice

So, I presume you're heading down to City Hall this evening (Thursday, Jan. 22), to the "special-called City Council meeting, public hearing, and interactive town hall" to discuss the sweeping changes in City Council structure and process proposed by Mayor Steve Adler and the new 10-1 Council. Assuming the half-million or so of us who complain regularly about transparency and accountability in city government can fit into the room, festivities will start at 5:30pm, public comments begin at 6pm, and it should all wrap up sometime before 3am, the traditional end-time for Council meetings.

One of the biggest concerns so far has been the plan to double the number of Council committees, and shift much of the workload and public-hearing schedule to them. There's so much going on here it's hard to wrap one's brain around it all, so I thought perhaps one useful starting point would be a look at specifically what these new committees would cover, and how they differ from the current lineup.

There are currently seven standing Council committees (an eighth, on economic incentives, completed its work and is no longer active). Some of the 13 proposed new committees are simple updates of the current ones; some are entirely new. In principle, they've been designed to be more inclusive of all the work the Council does, and to align more closely with the city departments, in order to simplify and improve lines of communication between Council and staff. There would be four CMs on each committee; so, doing the math, every CM would chair at least one committee, be vice chair on another, and sit on perhaps three more.

• Audit would have oversight of various audit reports, and citizen commissions.

• Finance would oversee investment policy, employee benefit and retirement programs, and bond spending. These two are currently combined in the Audit & Finance Committee.

• Austin Energy is unchanged, although in the past, this has been a committee in name only, because every Council member has also been an AE committee member; that will presumably change in the new structure.

• Health and Human Services is unchanged, except the word "Public" is gone from the title.

• Public Safety replaces the Judicial Com­mit­tee, presumably with the wider mandate the name change implies, and would cover everything from code enforcement to Police/Fire/EMS to courts.

• Economic Development replaces the Minority-Owned and Women-Owned Business Enterprises and Small Busi­ness Committee, which just makes sense.

• Innovation and Creative Industries replaces Emerging Technology and Telecom­muni­cations, presumably recognizing the importance of the creative sector in the local economy, and handing off telecom regulation to the new Public Utilities committee.

• Public Utilities is new, covering Austin Water, drainage, trash pickup, plus telecom regulation.

• Intergovernmental Affairs is new, covering everything from legislative priorities to interlocal agreements and joint programs with federal, state, county, and school governments.

Lastly, Comprehensive Planning and Trans­portation – clearly too broad a purview to be meaningful – is to be replaced by several new and more focused panels, which, for all that, will still have their hands full:

• Planning and Neighborhoods covers everything from the Imagine Austin master plan to the Land Development Code rewrite, to zoning and development review. That's still a huge and controversial mandate; to me, this looks like the hot seat.

• Mobility, which covers everything from the Aviation Department to roads, bike lanes, and sidewalks, looks like another flash point.

• Open Space, Environment, and Sus­tain­ability would cover parks, trees, and waterfront protection, but also "climate protection" and "trash, recycling, and compost," which is a major overlap with those public utilities.

• Housing and Community Development would keep tabs on the Housing Authority and community-service block grants.

It's important to note that some of these committees would meet frequently – perhaps almost as often as the full Council – while some (Audit, Finance, and Intergovernmental Affairs, perhaps) would meet far less often. Still, the major question is, can there indeed be sufficient public access and transparency, with so many meetings going on? It's unclear whether the city has the capacity to televise, or at least live-stream, all of these meetings. The Statesman claims we don't; Council members say they're looking into that and don't know yet, but this clearly is a big sticking point. No one, not even the mayor's staff, is going to be able to keep tabs on all these meetings; it's absolutely imperative that we be able to follow them electronically – easily, quickly, and completely – or this whole plan grinds to an ugly halt.

Speaking of which, if for some reason you can't make it down to City Hall tonight, you can watch the action on ATXN Channel 6 or online, or listen to KAZI 88.7FM, which will air the meeting live. Enjoy!

It's My Park Day Project Registration is open now, through the end of January. This collaboration of the Austin Parks Foundation and Austin PARD, held the first Saturday of March, brings thousands of volunteers together to improve parks and greenbelts throughout the city – 2014 featured over 100 projects, over 3,000 volunteers, and over 10,000 hours of volunteer labor – in all, they estimate an investment of over a quarter-million dollars in Austin's parks. If you have an idea for a park that could benefit from this kind of attention, fill out the simple online form at The city will review all applications and notify project leaders of the results. Then keep an eye out for volunteer registration, which opens Feb. 8.

Conversation Corps, a program of hosted conversations about important issues, created by the City of Austin, AISD, Capital Metro, and Leadership Austin, kicks off with a trial conversation, with opening remarks from Mayor Steve Adler and other key partners, at 1pm Sunday, Jan. 25, at Strange Brew Austin Coffee, 5326 Manchaca Rd.

The Austin Humane Society is offering $20 adoption fees for large dogs over 40 pounds. In an effort to find homes for the large dogs currently at AHS, they'll continue this special until further notice, at 124 W. Anderson.

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