Austin At Large: Stop Me If You’ve Heard This ...
When we perform as public citizens, what do we really want?
A long time ago, I asked architect Antoine Predock if his design for the then-unbuilt Austin City Hall, with its outdoor stage and wide-open lobby and skybridges, could be viewed as one big performance space. "Performance is a metaphor you can take a lot of different directions in Austin," he replied. "Above all, it's a civic place, and I hope the citizens see it as a vital place. They're invited to come to spectacles, whether that be a performance on the bandstand or a meeting occurring in the Council chambers. And the emotional accessibility that goes with that is part of the message."
I thought about that at a certain moment last Thursday, as the land use code rewrite machine sputtered back to life, as speakers spoke and Council listened, and as we reached that outer limit of performative public engagement at which absolutely nothing new is being said or heard or learned by anyone, but the talking continues nonetheless. "I'm sure that by now you all have heard every argument," said one speaker (at 8:45pm). "This public testimony is more about showing up and displaying your commitment."
The Act of Signaling
Which is exactly what a lot of people hate about it! Why should they have to drag their asses Downtown on a school night to show in person, in 2019, that they care about an issue or would like to have their rights respected? In a 10-1 city that votes in November, we can have more faith than we used to that our elections can deliver true mandates to our leaders – such as to Go Big on rewriting the land use code – and for the smaller-scale issues in between, we have umpteen ways to keep in touch with City Hall that don't require the act of signaling or taking part in a spectacle. Or do they?
Among the things I did in the years since I spoke to Predock was chair the Council's Task Force on Community Engagement – formed as one of the first official acts of the new 10-1 Council in 2015. We came up with many recommendations for improvement, but could not arrive at a consensus on the one idea I think City Hall may secretly have wanted us to propose – how to limit public input at Council meetings.
The problem was framed as meetings going on too long, which citizens, staff, and members alike deplored for their own reasons. (For example, the recent ethics charge thrown at, and then withdrawn from, city HR Director Joya Hayes was for asking her friends/colleagues to help watch her young son until she was able to finally take him home on meeting nights.) But what that really means is that people are talking too much. Now, staffers will get rudely silenced if they ramble, so they are usually not the problem.
Elected officials have their own reasons for filibustering, or at least understand they will be mocked if they do so, as when Council Member Leslie Pool – who formed the TFCE and appointed me to it – claimed to some amusement that she and her colleagues were "never up there playing around and wasting people's time." But members of the public feel compelled to talk too much, in an aggregate of three-minute or one-minute allotments, all the way to sunrise if necessary because they fear they will not "be heard" otherwise.
What It Means to "Be Heard"
That fear speaks to the "emotional accessibility" noted by Predock. People can know that their input has been recorded and considered. There are whole elaborate schemes for doing so in the world of public engagement, such as during a federal environmental review, and the information explosion creates new channels for feedback all the time. You can see when people read your texts.
But that moment of "being heard" has much salience in public decision-making and is proving difficult to produce by other means. We on the TFCE could not get to a proposal that did not bear the faint aroma of inequity to someone; Pool, CM Ann Kitchen, and others were quick to state that Thursday night's testimony was not the last chance Austinites would have to speak in person and in public on an issue that has consumed City Hall for six years. To say otherwise would, in some way, be hurtful to someone.
A similar reality lies under the surface of the Texas Open Meetings Act and its good-government kindred, the subject of this week's news feature. (Ironically, one of the first things we did on the TFCE was ask Council to exempt us from TOMA precisely because the law isn't nimble enough to handle innovative public engagement. The Statesman was so mad!) Though much is made of the public's right to "know," much of what TOMA protects is the public's right to not feel ignored, to feel like its presence and interests matter in the business of state.
There have been many calls to be nicer to one another as we wrangle with land use reform this time around and, along with it, affordability and mobility and socioeconomic equity and racial justice and the other burdens of our city. But what will matter is not simply politeness or even good humor, but empathy – for our leaders, for each other, and for ourselves – so we can trust that we have been heard, and move on.