A Light Meeting as the New Council Gets Itself Sorted

First work session focused on committee memberships

A Light Meeting as the New Council Gets Itself Sorted

The new City Council is off to the races, holding its first regular meeting of the year today, Thursday, Jan. 26. It's the first Council meeting Mayor Kirk Watson will chair in more than 20 years, and the first chance he will have to lead a meeting inside of Austin's new City Hall building, located at 301 W. Second, a relocation he helped secure funding for during his second mayoral term.

Thursday's agenda looks to be an easy one. It has 83 items, with only two items from Council (one, from Council Member Vanessa Fuentes, would direct staff to lower parking requirements for child care centers) that are likely to pass without controversy. The agenda's most complicated zoning case (the planned unit development at Brodie Oaks) is likely to be postponed, per the request of CM Ryan Alter, to the Feb. 9 meeting. That's all well and good, because Watson and his fellow newbie CMs (José Velásquez, Ryan Alter, and Zo Qadri) may well need to ride with the training wheels on for a few meetings before they get the hang of things.

Council met Tuesday, Jan. 24, for their first work session of the year. CMs didn't pull any items from the Thursday agenda to discuss, and staff did not have any briefings to present. Most of the discussion focused on appointments to Council committees, such as the coveted Housing and Planning Committee, and intergovernmental committees such as the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO).

CMs broadly agreed on who should serve where, with only a few areas of disagreement. After today's meeting, Natasha Harper-Madison will be the new chair of the Housing and Planning Committee, Fuentes will chair the four-person Public Health Committee, and Watson will chair the Public Safety Com­mit­tee (which, curiously, will have two vice chairs, Mackenzie Kelly and Chito Vela). Leslie Pool will continue as one of Council's two appointees to the Capital Metro Board of Trustees, where she currently serves as the board's secretary, and will be joined by Vela. Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis and CMs Alison Alter, Harper-Madison, and Fuentes will represent Austin at CAMPO, with Watson serving as an alternate.

Fuentes expressed concern over Pool chairing both of Council's utility oversight committees (Austin Energy and Austin Water) and suggested that instead, the freshman Alter ought to chair Water. Pool politely pushed back, noting that the typical ascension route was for newer members to serve a period as vice chair to gain a better understanding of how to run meetings before graduating to chair. The issue was left unresolved.

More broadly, Watson indicated that Council may want to reconsider the nature of committees at a "retreat" of sorts, which could take place in mid-February, where Council and City Manager Spencer Cronk could meet publicly to discuss Council-manager workflow. "We are a legislative body," Watson explained to his colleagues, "so ... in order to do the work and be substantive in doing that work, some items from Council, if not all, should first go to the committee that has jurisdiction" over that policy area.

Doing so would represent a notable change to how Council committees function; currently, they don't engage in much substantive policy work and instead mostly serve as a forum for staff and other experts to present information to three to five CMs in a public setting. Watson's reasoning, which he stressed is very preliminary at this point, is that more time spent on Council resolutions in committees might whip them into better shape by the time they land on an agenda before the full Council – a process more akin to the one used by larger legislative bodies, such as the Texas Senate, where he served for 13 years.

* Editor's note Thursday, Jan. 26, 11:45am: This story has been updated. The story incorrectly stated Mackenzie Kelly would represent the city at Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO); that will be Vanessa Fuentes. We regret our error.

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