Monday, January 23, 2017

Austin Mayor Proposes to Shorten City Council Meetings

Mayor Steve Adler is proposing new rules for Austin City Council meetings aimed at shortening them, the Austin American Statesman reports.  Currently, Austin’s City Council meetings are by far the longest in the state.

The longest meeting of 2016 year took place in June and lasted until after 3am, but meetings that go past 10pm or even midnight are very common in Austin.  Last year, over half of the the council’s regular voting meetings went past 7pm and six lasted until after midnight.  The meetings start at 10am.  In Dallas and San Antonio, city council meetings start at 9am and are usually done by 4pm and never go longer than 6pm.

The median time of a meeting last year in Austin was 10 hours, six hours in Dallas, and just five hours in San Antonio and Houston.  Houston structures their meetings differently, with the citizen input portion occurring on Tuesday evenings and votes happening on Wednesday mornings.

Mayor Adler is proposing a few changes to shorten meetings, including starting at 9am or 9:30am and setting an absolute ending time of 11pm except for one public hearing meeting a month, which will be designed just to accommodate large public hearings.  That one public hearing meeting will have no cutoff time and will skip the invocation, live music, and proclamations.  Other rules are around limiting the amount of time the public can speak such as allowing only sixty people to speak per item (unless the law requires otherwise), setting allotted time per speaker to 2 minutes rather than the current 3 minutes when over 20 people sign up, or 1 minute per person after the first 20 people when over 30 people sign up, and not allowing people to speak once council starts discussing an item.  

Most other cities set limits on how long and often the public can speak, and Mayor Adler says while he will consider other policy changes, but he doesn’t want to threaten Austin’s long tradition of public input.

The council is also going to discuss how to restructure the committee system, which consists of smaller groups of 4 council members who focus on an issue and then bring their findings back to the large council.  While the city council had tried the committee system in the past, the overall council seemed reluctant to abide by the decisions of the smaller groups.

The council members all agree something should be done about the long hours and late night meetings while still allowing the public to have their say.  It remains to be seen whether the changes can be implemented without public or council backlash.

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