Two years after Austin voters elected 10 council members from newly drawn geographical districts, voters are faced with the possibility of replacing nearly half of the expanded City Council.
On Nov. 8, the five council members who randomly drew two-year terms will have to be re-elected to build on the work they achieved since being elected. Prior to 10-1, six council members and a mayor were elected at-large, or citywide.
So how well has the council served Austin residents in the past two years?
Peck Young, one of the chief architects of Austin’s district-based political system, said it will take time for Austin City Council to find its footing—just as it did when San Antonio made a similar switch a few decades ago.
“I think this council is not unlike the council [was] in San Antonio and is still in the process of learning,” Young said.
Outgoing City Manager Marc Ott—who is serving in an advisory role until Oct. 31—said the council is indeed experiencing a learning curve, but it is not just the council that is adjusting.
“Going to a district-based change in election, I think the impact is pervasive across many things in our community,” Ott said. “I think it’s just going to take time to be able to see more clearly what those impacts are.”
A consensus seemed to emerge among Austin constituents interviewed for this story by Community Impact Newspaper: Moving to geographical representation was necessary for the city, but the system is not yet functioning at optimal levels.
With only one council member, Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo, having prior council experience, most expected a period of transition—including Austin Neighborhood Council President Mary Ingle.
“We knew that was going to happen, but I didn’t know it was going to be this rough,” Ingle said.
An ongoing concern is that council business is not always conducted efficiently. Meetings tend to begin about 19 minutes after the scheduled 10 a.m. start time, and the median time City Council has adjourned its meetings is 7:20 p.m., according to meeting transcripts.
City code calls for adjourning meetings no later than 10 p.m. The council has to vote to extend time, which it has done 20 times in the 10-1 system.
In April the council adopted legislation limiting the amount of public comment time that could be spent on an agenda item—with some exceptions—to 90 minutes. One rationale behind that measure was council members and staff were often hearing the same testimony when they convened in committee meetings.
The committee structure stems from the first meeting of the new 10-1 council in January 2015 when council approved Mayor Steve Adler’s resolution establishing committees broken into policy areas.
Committees would discuss items to minimize time spent on those items during regular meetings. With 10 council committees, each council member sits on at least four committees, leads one and is vice chairperson for another.
Although well-intentioned, the council committees have not produced the desired result, said Ward Tisdale, Real Estate Council of Austin president.
“It has really created more meetings without better results,” he said.
Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said although the aspiration to be transparent is admirable having so many commissions and committees “drags out the process.”
“I think that’s been somewhat of a frustrating point, particularly for the business community where our voice seems to get washed,” he said.
At an Oct. 6 meeting, the subject of coyotes inspired an exchange of words among council members about geographical representation.
As council discussed whether to keep the status quo on its animal-control policy with respect to coyotes, which some residents in Northwest Austin say pose a public safety threat, District 6 Council Member Don Zimmerman said the policy ought to be revisited because the last time it was set by council was in November 2014, two months before the 10-1 council was sworn in.
Zimmerman called the at-large elected body the “downtown City Council.”
“The people of this city rejected the old way of doing business, which is the downtown City Council,” he said. “Everybody was elected very close to downtown; the people revolted against that, so they said, ‘We want suburban representation.’”
Brad Parsons, a Northwest Austin sector representative for the Austin Neighborhood Council, said the 10-1 council is falling short of expectations, primarily because it is not skeptical of staff and lobbyists. In the past, he said Northwest Austin residents were disproportionately represented, but now the opposite is true.
“The average in person in West Austin is maybe getting less reception down at City Hall now,” Parsons said.