Point Austin: A Work in Progress?

The new Council is getting ready to decide to decide

Point Austin

Mayor Steve Adler's second signature initiative was derailed by his first signature initiative.

That's one way to look at last week's decision on the mayor's proposal to add several staff members to his office and a $25,000 "citizen outreach" lagniappe to each of the 10 City Council district offices. After much discussion on the dais, the mayor's motion to move the proposal forward was instead sent to the Audit and Finance Com­mit­tee for further review. As it stands, the resolution would still require City Manager Marc Ott to identify existing staff "vacancies" to transfer to the mayor, as well as a budgetary source for that additional $250,000 – and then return to Council – and in another gesture to his colleagues, Adler had limited the proposal to this year's budget cycle. It still came a cropper, 6-5 – or more politely, was "referred to committee."

That's a phrase more common to the Legislature than it's ever been to city government, where the traditional decision pattern was citizen, staff, or Council initiative, board and commission review, then Council committee as needed, and finally formal consideration by Council – which might postpone a decision for more input or reflection, but had nowhere else to punt it. Under the new 10-1 committee system, when Council is feeling resistant or simply hesitant (and the latter sentiment has been dominating thus far), they can kick the can to a committee – the Adler proposal was not alone, but the first headline casualty of that process.

And in the bargain, it delivered an initial snapshot of what may become political fault lines among the members. The staffing proposal was co-sponsored by CMs Ann Kitchen (D5), Leslie Pool (D7), and Sheri Gallo (D10), and Kitchen in particular seemed dismissive of her colleagues' concerns that unbalancing office staffs might presage an imbalance in political power (presumably, if the proposal were to triple the mayor's staff, Kitchen's radar might have beeped). But they could persuade only CM Pio Renteria (D3) to join them, mostly under the very tentative proviso, "Let's give it a try." The remainder – especially CM Delia Garza (D2) – were simply not buying it, and were unpersuaded (indeed, somewhat annoyed) by the mayor's campaign-style email blast that filled their inboxes with promises of "change!"

Meetings to Order

It's still early, and I'm trying hard to suspend judgment of how 10-1 things are going until Council has a few more weeks under its belt – perhaps until March, when presumably the committee system will actually begin functioning and we learn whether that's where proposals go to be refined ... or to die. They certainly haven't lacked for "meetings" – last Thursday's session danced perilously close to midnight, and this week they will have held "special-called" policy workshops Monday and Friday, the Tuesday work session, and today's regular meeting – leaving them all of Wednesday to read documents and meet with staff and constituents. As one longtime observer (undeniably a little jaundiced) reminded me: "The more meetings you have, the less work gets done."

There also seems to be more than necessary confusion on the dais: The Austin Monitor's Elizabeth Pagano noted this week that the late-night, first-reading vote on the Garza Ranch zoning variance – Council somehow picked "13,000 vehicle trips" out of the air – appears to have been proposed by nobody, and no Council member would claim it after the fact. Similarly, Adler didn't bother to relinquish the chair when he made his motion on the staffing proposal – another parliamentary no-no. They can presumably fix those stumbles in due course; but at times, amendments upon amendments are flying around like confetti, under an exceedingly indulgent chair – and the city attorney is not exactly leaping to bail out the procedural lifeboat. Should some landowner, after losing a zoning case, take a notion to be punctilious about such matters, the city attorney may find herself cramming Robert's Rules.

Power Failure

After Tuesday's all-day work session, a few more contentious Items appear headed to the referred-to-committee pile, and if Council ever completes its policy workshops (no longer "deep dives"), perhaps the committees themselves will have time to rumble into gear.

The workshops, meanwhile, have developed their own seminar-like pattern: Council hears from departmental heads on existing policies and practices (that one might have thought serious candidates had studied last year, or earlier), then a brace of invited advocates adds three-minute color on various details.

The tutorial group now inevitably includes some conservative think-tanker suggested by CM Don Zimmerman (D6), who ritualistically complains that counter-arguments to long-standing city policy are not being sufficiently entertained. Zimmer­man also likes to berate staff members because they have too much power; none of those powerful personages have felt sufficiently empowered to publicly contradict CM Zimmerman.

And, thus far, his colleagues have mostly been content just to change the subject. With time (another month?), perhaps by their decisions we shall know them.

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City Council 2015, Steve Adler, Ann Kitchen

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