Council Reconsiders Committee Structure
"We can make the process more efficient and effective”
The new City Council's first regular meeting is not until next week (Jan. 26; work session Jan. 24), but in the interim they've been busy with longer-term projects. Last week included two days of off-site retreat/workshops, primarily working on planning matters with consultants from Accenture, as well as a joint meeting with appointees to the CodeNEXT Code Advisory Group, reviewing staff plans for public outreach over the next few months. That process is heating up (see "Can't Hardly Wait," Jan. 20), and should simmer through public meetings and boards and commissions over the next few months.
Also moving forward is the ongoing conversation along the dais concerning Council's own committees. Several members have grown increasingly impatient with the committee structure and its burdens – committee chairs began cutting back on meetings last year – and it appears that a majority is finally ready to take action. The Council message board (austincouncilforum.org) is beginning to bristle with proposals, and Mayor Steve Adler – designer of the original committee structure, based on the legislative model – is finally deferring to his colleagues.
Although in principle the committees were intended to review proposals, take public testimony, and make recommendations to the whole council, in practice they've added a repetitive layer between the council and boards and commissions (charged with essentially the very same tasks), and they've doubled rather than halved Council's workload. Advocates on all sides, rejected at some earlier level of scrutiny, still yearn to make their public cases before Council, and Council is reluctant to limit that access. (The practice does raise the charming notion that the Legislature enables public testimony before the whole body of the House or Senate.)
The current conversation reportedly began between Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo and Council Member Delia Garza, and CM Leslie Pool has since grabbed the rope via message board, reflecting that Ann Kitchen and Ora Houston have also shown interest. (Quorum rules prevent much direct discussion outside public meetings.) Pool told the Chronicle that she's come to believe that the current structure is repetitive and inefficient, and she's posted some suggestions on which committees might be eliminated (especially those that have been holding duplicative hearings on the same matters). "We'll have to retain some – some are required by the City Charter – and we're still thinking about what might be done concerning major committees like Austin Energy." (That's a committee of the whole, as Council also functions as AE's board of directors.)
"We just feel that we can make the process more efficient and effective," Pool said. (One suggestion she posted is to move staff briefings of committees directly to Council work sessions; currently a given CM might hear the same briefing before two different committees, and then again before the whole council.)
Garza echoes much of what Pool said, even more skeptically: "What's that definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results?" She acknowledged supporting the changes when first installed in 2015 – "We were the first 10-1 Council, and we wanted to consider different ways of doing things" – but has concluded, "It doesn't seem to have accomplished what I envisioned it would accomplish." She mentioned both the loss of time and efficiency, and opportunities to work on other Council and District 2 priorities.
Adler responded positively to the discussion, posting, "I want to offer the possibility that we consider ad hoc, short-term, specific focus committees with memberships based on interest and availability." At the time, Pool was hoping for a robust discussion during the two days of Council workshops – in an awkward omen, they managed 15 minutes at the conclusion of the second day.
The early draft agenda (to be updated this Friday, Jan. 20) is not a light greeting to the new year: 93 Items, including some three dozen zoning cases (some marked for postponement, others for second or third reading). A few potential highlights:
• Raising the Bar: A proposal to strengthen both the City Auditor's ethical jurisdiction and authority of the Ethics Review Commission, including subpoena power on complaints (might bear hemming and hawing).
• Dance 'Til Dawn: Potential pilot for longer venue hours (past 2am) in Red River Cultural District: Bars want it; residential neighbors may not.
• Grand Central: An interlocal agreement to enable Cap Metro to plan a permanent rail station (and plaza) on Fourth Street, ergo restore two-way traffic on Fifth. All aboard?
• Musical Life Preserver?: After long delay, the "Music & Creative Ecosystem Omnibus Resolution" finally hits the dais (the Red River extended hours is one of many related elements). Doug Freeman's musical sources were telling him it's already too late, a year ago ("We Can't Make It Here Anymore," May 27, 2016). Here's hoping for the best.
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