Point Austin: Reinventing the Wheel
Council goes to work on the process
Let's begin by applauding the exhaustively earnest effort of the newly sworn-in City Council members to re-think and re-frame the procedures of local government. Their early enthusiasm and energy are laudable, as is their willingness to try new ways of doing city business. As the political consultants like to say, November's was a "change" election – especially for the long pent-up demand to move to geographic, single-member districts – and most of the members had campaigned on bringing fresh perspectives, more neighborhoods, and broader engagement to City Hall.
That's all to the good. We'll begin to discover today (Jan. 29) how Council's plan to re-jigger the decision process has been revised in response to public feedback at last week's town hall and in the various online, email, Twitter, text, phone, etc. responses. (At times, the town hall delivered the unnerving impression of a local hospital TV telethon, and another object lesson: More input does not necessarily mean better input.) Most comment has been tentatively supportive, willing to give the members their procedural honeymoon in the hope that improvements will indeed result – and Council has made it plain that after a "trial period" (six months is most often mentioned) – they'll review all the changes for what works and what doesn't.
It may not take that long. At Tuesday's work session, some members were already having second and third thoughts about trying to move most public hearings to standing committees (14? 13? 10?) and away from the full Council. It's a Legislature-derived model (that in itself might make most Austinites dubious), but in addition to the broadest objection – that advocates (on all sides) will often want to make their case before the full, 11-member Council – the plan presents difficult logistical problems that the members appear to have initially underestimated. Most simply, to allow most residents to attend, public hearings generally begin in the evening – and there are a limited number of evenings, meeting rooms, livestreams, and only one Channel 6 (ATXN) – not to mention a limited number of staff members, who have actual lives and families.
On the other hand, unlimited committee meetings do present the possibility of unlimited employment for lobbyists.
Hold That Thought
Frankly, I think the new Council has already made its most important procedural change: the decision to hold more regular meetings. The sheer amount of business had outgrown the Council's size – beyond the districting issue, there simply needed to be more officials and more regular meetings for a city on Austin's scale. If Council succeeds in segregating zoning cases (which often require their own hearings) and most executive sessions into separate meetings, they will go a long way to solving their agenda problem, and the need will diminish to meet long into the night. (Again, it's not that simple – executive sessions, for example, often arise from unanticipated legal questions, so they can't be side-barred entirely.)
Their first response this week – apparently to postpone all pending zoning cases into February – is hardly an optimum solution, but they can be forgiven for it – once. Indeed, as they learn the ropes, their early meetings are likely to be longer rather than shorter, a notion borne out by this week's first work session on Tuesday, which lasted roughly twice as long as last year's commonly did (and they weren't finished when they adjourned). And they haven't even directly entered contentious territory yet (the long-debated Garza Tract southwest zoning case looks likely to test patience on all sides). The length of the meetings will be the least of their problems.
Pay That Piper
I'm guessing that, perhaps after some weeks of dithering, most important public hearings will arrive where they always have – right in front of the dais. The objections to that outcome have been frankly contradictory: People complain that once a proposal is before Council, "nobody's listening because the decisions have already been made" and simultaneously that "Council members are making decisions right on the dais." In this observer's experience, righteous denunciations (whatever their source) of "the process" most often come down to, "The decision didn't go my way, so the process was unfair" – and that pattern's not going to be changed by re-arranging the deck chairs.
A couple of other notions are more worrisome. Mayor Steve Adler's proposal (joined by CM Ora Houston) to allow re-allocation of members' salaries for other office expenses sets a bad policy precedent: Public office should not be a philanthropic exercise. Even more troubling is the mayor's idea to solicit private funding for extended staff or special mayoral projects – we don't need smiling, deep-pocketed foxes (okay, "benefactors") surrounding the public henhouse. If the city's budget is too small to get the necessary public work done, let's have that substantive, public budget debate.
Indeed, if there needs to be more money in the 10-1 mayoral budget, maybe we should re-allocate some of that $36 million we're contemplating annually dolloping out to homeowners, for "affordability." We voted for public representation, not private charity – we should pay for our own self-government.