Diving Right In

The new 10-1 Council begins to re-invent Austin government

This draft flowchart of how an item may move through a meeting could bring the Council to uncharted, even dangerous depths.
This draft flowchart of how an item may move through a meeting could bring the Council to uncharted, even dangerous depths.

Down at City Hall this month, optimism, ambition, transparency, and earnestness are the watchwords and order of the day. Led by fledgling Mayor Steve Adler, the 10 Council members (only District 9's Kathie Tovo is a holdover from the previous Council) appear determined, early on, to completely transform the procedures of city government, to promote more citizen engagement, to get folks involved earlier in the policy-making process, to generate more public consensus over city decisions – and to make very, very certain that no regular Council meeting lasts until 3am.

Thus far, "change everything" and "no meetings until 3am" are about the only matters on which the new Council appears to have consensus – and thus far, that's intentional. Before getting into the contentious gristle of policy decisions, the members have determined they will design a new decision-making structure, founded on expanded work for Council committees – a structure derived from Adler's experience at the Legislature, where he spent years as a chief aide to former El Paso Democratic Sen. Eliot Shapleigh. The proposed structure – formally unveiled Thursday, Jan. 22, at the public engagement Town Hall (which followed the 2015 Council's first formal public meeting) – would roughly double the number of standing Council committees (from seven to 13), assign at least one chairmanship to every CM, and move much full-Council business and most public hearings on pending proposals to those committees. (See "Public Notice: Government by Committee," Jan. 23.) Beyond this committee principle, they plan to meet more often as a full body (e.g., weekly instead of bi-weekly, commonly the previous practice), and perhaps off-load executive sessions and zoning cases (often requiring their own, full-Council public hearings) to separate meetings whenever possible.

All of this was subject to public feedback last week in person and online (and by phone, tweet, Facebook, and text), and subject to further discussion and (in theory) adoption today (Thursday, Jan. 29). Beyond that, members say they will "try it out" for six months, and adjust as necessary as time goes by. Most of last Thursday's feedback was positive, but tentatively so – several speakers in the initially full house expressed concerns that committee hearings would simply not be as accessible or effective as full-Council hearings, and indirectly limit the public's ability to affect policy. (Earlier in the week, the Austin American-Statesman editors took a similar position: "We agree that late-night meetings have to go. But public hearings before the full council should stay.")

Nevertheless, most of the new members ran campaigns based on variations of "changing the way we do business at City Hall," and now they've committed themselves to give those variations a try. Rhetorically, and in principle, the structural revisions are intended to get earlier and fuller public engagement and consensus on policy decisions, spread out the policy work more efficiently, and – if all goes well – convene full Council meetings (with shorter and more efficient agendas) in confidence that the public can readily see and understand why decisions are being made (whether they agree, or not, with those decisions).

What about actual policies? While it's possible to deduce a range of potential positions from the folks now on the dais (and from their campaigns) most of them are currently doing their best to focus on the structural changes before getting deeply into policy debates. For example, veteran CM Kathie Tovo told the Chronicle that she certainly expects to return to policy initiatives like affordability requirements in new developments, the Families and Children Task Force she sponsored, and environmental issues like the Integrated Water Resource Management Plan. But right now she's focused on Council processes and collaboration, and she expects that focus to remain at least a few more weeks. "We're working on those issues," Tovo said, "but we're going to allow this process of building relationships as a Council, and letting those policy discussions take place over the next month or so, before we launch into some of those initiatives. ...

"But to the extent that we can, I'm going to let a little bit of time pass – we have a pretty full agenda over the next month or so, so it seems to make sense to allow that to happen, and allow the focus to be looking for commonalities, shared values, and so on."

Hold Your Breath

Those "policy discussions" Tovo referred to are elsewhere described (in Adler's terms) as "deep dives" into existing city policies, the list of which is still in development, and the scuba schedule in flux. The deep-dive topics range from the obvious (zoning matters, Austin Energy, watershed protection) to the fairly abstract ("Resili­en­cy" and "Silos vs. Shared Solutions"), and initially, from a list of about two dozen, scheduled to persist into the last week of April. Fairly quickly (during their mid-January "orientation" sessions at the Down­town Hilton), the members realized that elongated schedule was impractical; CM Don Zimmerman (District 6) wondered aloud when the group would begin doing something instead of talking about doing something. As of Jan. 23, a revised schedule hadn't been released – but two of the "dives" had already occurred (zoning, and the city as employer), and it had become clear – despite the mayor's initial campaign notion to hold off on major decisions for 100 days or so – that policy review and policy decisions are going to take place, willy-nilly, simultaneously.

Council members had already gotten a fairly heady taste of process review in its three-day orientation session, consisting primarily of department heads delivering rapid-fire briefings of their main departmental functions, with brief interludes for Council questions and occasional pushback on details before plunging into the next briefing. CM Ora Houston (District 1) made a point of insisting that staff presenters step away from the acronyms – like any specialty, city business has its own jargon – and it's Houston who has been most insistent that "breaking down silos" be an important aspect of the new order.

And those process reviews often raised plenty of questions – none so many as Travis County Attorney David Escamilla's attempt to enlighten Council members on open government/open meeting procedures, and more specifically how much and how thoroughly they might be allowed to speak to one another outside of publicly posted Council meetings. This presentation was the latest fallout from Escamilla's 2012 consent decree with most of the previous Council, and Adler said that he had discussed the matter at length with Escamilla in previous weeks, hoping to loosen the reins a bit, or, failing that, at least making certain everybody is on the same page.

It took some doing – and at least at first, several Council members came away from Escamilla's disquisition with a slightly different understanding of what is and is not allowed. Some thought they could privately talk policy independently with all 10 other members, as long as they didn't transmit one member's position to another (the Statesman reporter received the same impression, reported it – and had to issue a correction the next day). Since then, the common perception has become, one Council member can talk to as many as four other members (a quorum is six), and those others can each talk to a different four, with the same proviso against passing along intelligence.

But a couple of members said they remained uncertain, and Tovo (the only returning incumbent) said she was going to re-review Escamilla's presentation before deviating from what had become standard practice among the seven-member Council – no additional discussions on any particular policy beyond any three (quorum was four), and that's where the conversation ended. "It's certainly possible that we adopted a more conservative practice than was absolutely necessary," Tovo said. "If we have more flexibility within the Open Meetings Act, that's a good thing. But I want to be very clear that I understand what is allowable, before I change my practice."

The hope is, of course, that the publicly engaged "deep dives" will not only educate members and the public about the wide range of current city policies (and where they might be improved or changed), but also about "shared values" and "commonalities" which could then move forward to policy determinations. Adler suggested there would be potential "Venn diagrams" of policy positions among several Council members, even among those who, by principle, district, or campaign promises, might have wide areas of disagreement. Arguably, they've at least come together as a group to massively revise the decision-making process – whether they'll generally agree on the flavor of sausage delivered at the end of that process remains to be seen.

Where's the Fire?

Most of the Town Hall witnesses last Thurs­day were willing to give the new Coun­cil plenty of benefit of the doubt – whether that will turn out to be enough rope to hang themselves remains to be seen. Since most members are remaining somewhat coy about policy approaches early on – let's tweak the process first, and then dig in – where everybody stands when they sit is also still a little vague. When Adler began talking about Venn diagrams and shared values, only Zimmerman leapt into the breach: "I'm for an immediate 20 percent homestead property tax exemption, and for shrinking government." It might have been churlish for someone to point out that the mayor had also run on a 20% homestead exemption (albeit phased in over several years), and will likely find himself with a Council split down the geographic middle on just how good an idea that is – the heavily homeowner western districts strongly favor it, while the farther east you travel, the more likely your Council member could find better ways to spend $36 million in public funds.

Let's see where the Venn circles fall.

While most of the members have been emphasizing process, a few early policy hints have emerged. All have been full-throated in support of "transparency" – unsurprisingly, no voices have been raised to defend confidentiality or secrecy – but Houston has reiterated, as she did in her campaign, that it is urgent that policy discussions seek to break down bureaucratic, social, and geographic "silos" – including any silos obstructing smartphoners from landliners. CM Greg Casar (District 4), rising out of the Workers Defense Project, is continuing to emphasize "social justice" and making certain the process changes acknowledge working people's schedules – which would suggest quite a few late-night committee hearings, an outcome not fully contemplated in the early discussions. CM Delia Garza (District 2) wants to initiate an Affordability Task Force (on the logic that all Council business must address affordability and there is no affordability committee), and CM Leslie Pool (District 7) is taking on a Public Engagement Task Force, perhaps to include Travis County, AISD, etc. (and everything from Twitter to landlines).

Zimmerman has made it clear that "property rights," writ large, are prominent on his agenda, and he even voted against an imaginary annexation ordinance in the Council's mock meeting, to make certain everyone knows where he stands (he took a similar position in the zoning briefing). He was also at the point of refusing (or personally paying for) midday sandwiches as a waste of public money, but it wasn't clear how that finally turned out.

In any case, events have a way of outrunning official priorities. Thursday morning (prior to the evening Town Hall), the mayor convened what was expected to be a fairly uneventful briefing (or "deep dive") about city employment policy – although in the shadow of the ongoing controversy over Austin Fire Department hiring and the Depart­ment of Justice consent decree. Three hours later, members emerged from an executive session on the decree, and then heard roughly three more hours from staffers about public safety contracts, with a heavy emphasis of the impasse with the Austin Firefighters Association. AFA Pres­id­ent Bob Nicks made it abundantly clear he was not happy with the city's posture nor the staff's presentation – "It was designed to make firefighters look bad, but then we're used to that" – and told the Council bluntly that the staff was misleading them, and they need to slow down the latest hiring process if they ever hope to get it right.

That session had to end, if for no other reason than Council needed to prepare for the evening outreach in person, by email, text, tweet, online survey, and by phone. But if the hiring matter had been on the agenda for a public hearing, one could imagine dozens of firefighters on hand to deliver their testimony – perhaps enough of them, their allies and opponents, to carry the testimony long past midnight.

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