“I think things have gone incredibly well,” Mayor Steve Adler said. “I had high hopes, and quite frankly this council has exceeded even my expectations in so many ways and on so many levels.”
Ten new council members, along with one veteran elected official, have now sat on the dais for slightly more than six months as of press time. During that time, the 11-member council created a new committee structure that mimics the state Legislature, passed a homestead tax exemption for 2016 and agreed to challenge Travis County commercial property appraisal values.
Adler said there were fears the new council system would not work or result in too much conflict among members. However, he said the council has excelled under the new structure.
“We have 10 really different people as council members with different constituencies and different needs, priorities and focuses,” Adler said. “I think the personal relationships that have developed and the respect that this council is showing for one another … has been remarkable, and I’m very proud of that.”
The council has worked collaboratively both on and off the dais, he said, but there will never be an expectation that all 11 members always agree.
“Quite frankly, a council works well when it demonstrates that it’s able to disagree constructively, and we’ve had a lot of that, too,” Adler said.
Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo said the city is benefiting from more council members and increased citizen involvement.
“There are opportunities to continue to reshape how local government interacts with community members, and that’s really exciting,” the District 9 council member said. “It continues to be a historic time for this city.”
AURA, a grass-roots group that promotes better land use and transportation policies to improve affordability, the environment and residential quality of life, conducted an informal survey in July to receive feedback on City Council’s first six months in office.
When asked how satisfied citizens are with City Council’s problem-solving ability, 45.8 percent of the 839 respondees rated council a three, four or five on a one to 10 scale.
Time adds up
The new council has held 45 committee meetings, 20 regular meetings, 18 work sessions, and 16 policy reviews or training sessions before taking a vacation in July. Thursday regular meetings—when council action is typically taken—have lasted a combined 140 hours and 40 minutes, not including recesses.
Spending so much time together initially was part of Adler’s plan, he said, so council members could learn each others’ perspectives on a faster timeline so more work could be accomplished sooner, he said.
Tovo, the only returning council member, said the time spent on in-depth policy discussions has proven beneficial, but she thinks the council will have to find ways to spend less time in meetings.
“I think the hours overall have not been fewer [than the previous council]. We’ve certainly spent more time in meetings—there’s just no doubt about that,” Tovo said.
Work sessions used to stop at noon on Tuesdays for the previous council; however, the current council has spent more time than its predecessors in work sessions asking questions of staff and each other. Tovo said she would like to see the work sessions go back to ending at noon.
This council has asked questions unabatedly since stepping into office, according to Adler, who said he does not believe previous council members would have asked as many questions. However, more questions have meant an average regular meeting lasts 9 hours and 9 minutes to review an average of 42 agenda items.
Agendas the past six months have been unusually short, Tovo said. A typical agenda for Austin should have about 80 items, she said.
“There is a lot of business that the city transacts on a regular basis,” Tovo said during a June 18 meeting. “We can certainly ask staff to balance out the agendas as much as possible, but we need to be careful not to set any kind of arbitrary limits or send staff the message that they shouldn’t bring items forward when they’re ready.”
The new 10-committee structure established in early 2015 will be re-evaluated in August, Adler said. The committee structure has helped decisions become more deliberative and provided every member a leadership role—not only in their district but also citywide, Adler said. Committees also help citizens get involved during an earlier stage in the process to craft new policies or ordinances, he said.
Adler suggests the council rely more on committees and their reports to potentially reduce council meeting lengths.
‘Too soon to judge’
Respondents to AURA’s survey rated Tovo as the most effective council member with 22.5 percent of the vote, and Adler was deemed the second-most effective with 21percent. District 4 Council Member Greg Casar placed third with 17.6 percent of votes.
AURA board member Eric Goff said the council has not yet tackled any major issues or policy changes but thinks such change could come about toward the end of 2015.
“I think it’s too soon to judge whether or not they’re efficient or effective, but we can say they haven’t done much so far and it’s not clear if that’s because of the [new] structure or because they’re avoiding controversial issues while they’re getting used to the dais,” Goff said.
Before the end of the year, Adler said he would like to see council work to end veteran homelessness, fix the city’s permitting process, begin creating more economic development opportunities in East Austin and create a plan to address an affordable housing shortage.