New mayor: No more late-night meetings

The day before the Jan. 6 Austin City Council inauguration ceremony, Steve Adler appeared calm to those around him, but the newly elected mayor said he was anxiously awaiting his opportunity to announce plans to revamp the way the city conducts business.

"I hope this council can join together to propose a new way of doing governance that enhances community participation, makes deliberation more thoughtful, more long-term, more proactive," Adler said Jan. 5.

A day later, council members joined Adler's pledge for reform during the inauguration ceremony. By Jan. 8 the new 11-member City Council unveiled proposed changes to Austin's governing structure in a plan that resembles the same committee-led structure followed by the Texas Legislature. Their proposal seeks to ensure shorter council meetings, more citizen engagement earlier in the process, greater transparency and better customer service for Austinites.

New meeting structure

Instead of offering comments immediately before council votes on a new ordinance or resolution, members of the public will potentially be able to address new council-led committees that take up issues before going to the full Austin City Council.

Hosting hearings earlier in the process will give the public a greater chance to shape policyinstead of testifying to council members who have already made up their minds, Adler said. The new structure is also intended to allow council-led committees to conduct thorough debates on important topics, Adler said, to ensure the best solution is put into law rather than having to revisit that same issue every few months.

The council committees will likely meet during the evening hours to allow working Austinites a chance to attend meetings and avoid interfering with residents work schedules, said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, the District 9 council representative and lone incumbent on the new council.

Previous councils often waived city rules to conduct meetings past the assigned 10 p.m. stop time. Adler said the new structure seeks to end that practice.

"[My wife] Diane and I have three girls, and weve always told them nothing good happens after midnight," Adler said. "I think thats true of city governance as well."

The length of meetings should shorten, he said, by shifting public comment periods to committee hearings instead of during the full Austin City Council meeting. Adler said he also intends on addressing zoning items and matters requiring executive session outside the typical Thursday meetings.

Zoning hearings averaged more than three hours in length during past council meetings, which typically lasted an average of nine hours and 31 minutes, according to a December report by the city auditor's office. The report showed other peer city councils met more and needed only three hours and 24 minutes to complete the average meeting.

Acting City Auditor Corrie Stokes said the steps proposed by Adler and the new City Council will likely help address many of the problems identified in the report.

"They've laid out the immediate steps, and they're going to evaluate after six months," she said. "I think that's the way to do it: you lay out your strategy, you see how well it's working and then you make changes as needed."

The effect the changes might have on City Councils schedule remains uncertain, Tovo said. Adler warned the new format is unlikely to mirror the old council schedulework sessions most Tuesday mornings, followed by full council meetings most Thursdays.

New elected representation

The new governing structure is intended to help Austinites become more involved in the governing process. However, new district-specific council members also intend to bring more regional interests to the table, a by product of the first Austin City Council with geographic representation in more than 100 years, former Mayor Lee Leffingwell said during the inauguration Jan. 6.

"With all of the [past] City Council people recently living north of the river and south of 45th Street, there are large parts of the city that have felt disengaged and uninvolved because they've been disengaged and uninvolved," Adler said. "I think there are lots of different voices and perspectives in this city, and I think we will be stronger when those voices and communities and new leaders are sitting at that council table together for the first time."

With so many different interests and viewpoints now on City Council, Adler said he fully expects vigorous debates to occur, but he also thinks the new council is capable of putting the city as a whole first. Tovo echoed his sentiments.

"I believe that the council members understand that they have been elected by a district but serve the whole city," Tovo said.

Tovo said she hopes to collaborate with the city's school districts to ensure best practices at each neighborhood school, find ways to make housing more affordable, reform property tax and solve quality-of-life issues. That includes addressing overnight construction noise that she said has many downtown residents losing sleep.

As the only City Council member with prior experience, Tovo said she is excited to receive a fresh start, one that includes council members having their seats on the dais randomly reassigned every six months.

"One of the things I really sense about the new council is a real commitment [to not let policy disagreements ruin a relationship], and I think it's much easier because we're all starting out without a history of working together, without a history of votes," Tovo said. "I believe we really have an opportunity to craft a culture of respect and civility despite any policy disagreements we have, and we will have them."

Adler said he is optimistic the new council will embrace its unique opportunity.

"I believe that Austin is a wonderful city doing so many things incredibly well, but we have some pretty significant challenges that we haven't been able to get out in front of," Adler said. "Now is the time to figure out how to do that; we have to change government."
By Jennifer Curington
Jennifer covers Austin City Council, its various committees and local business news. After covering Florida's 2013 legislative session she graduated from Georgia Southern University and joined Community Impact Newspaper in 2014.


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