By Bill Oakey – June 25, 2014
As some of you may know, I have been fighting various City Hall battles since the early 1980’s. If I could only pick one to have adopted as a reform in the 21st century, it would be one that I first attempted to bring forward in 1988. So, if we could get it adopted this year it would call for a 28th anniversary celebration. I might even take some cake down to City Hall if I thought it would pass.
In my early activist days, I was constantly frustrated by going to City Council meetings and having to wait up to six hours or longer to speak at public hearings and on other discussion items. I saw parents with small children, citizens with wheelchairs and crutches, and seniors with canes and walkers waiting sometimes until past midnight to speak passionately about issues that affected their daily lives.
In 1988 I drafted a “City Council Agenda Reform Proposal” to deal with this topic. I found a Council Member to sponsor the proposal and place it on the agenda. So I went down to City Hall and took a seat at the meeting. I waited. And then I waited some more. After a few hours went by, I kept on waiting. Finally, I stood at the speakers’ podium and delivered the proposal. Needless to say, nothing happened to change the process. But the next morning, I opened the Austin American-Statesman and saw my picture, along with a headline that read, “Agenda Critic Kept Waiting.”
Now it is 2014 and I am still waiting!
Believe it or not, the issue has arisen again and this time there is actual talk about getting something done with this reform. With your help, perhaps we can turn that talk into action. A delightfully friendly new City Hall reporter for the American-Statesman, Lilly Rockwell, has placed the issue front and center with this article from today’s paper. Here is a telling excerpt:
“The property tax proposals were only one of three hot-button topics the council was set to consider on the 6 p.m. portion of the agenda but didn’t get to until after 1 a.m. The more than 300 people who flooded City Hall earlier that evening to testify on garage apartments and a popular animal shelter had trickled out of City Council Chambers as the clock ticked on.”
According to the article, several flustered Council Members expressed words similar to my sentiments over the last 28 years: This is a situation up with which we can no longer put! (With all due apologies to my wonderful high school English teacher).
Once again I have asked for a City Council sponsor to place a reform proposal on the agenda. Hopefully, this time for action! Here is a draft for them to consider, as they work towards a long-overdue solution:
City Council Agenda Reform Proposal – 26th Anniversary Edition
- Public hearings should not be posted for 4:00 PM, as is commonly done under the current system. If the item is expected to draw a large number of speakers, it should be posted after normal business hours and after the City Council’s dinner break. 6:30 PM would be ideal, to allow citizens time to get through the traffic to City Hall.
- Discussion items with large numbers of citizens signed up to speak should also be posted on or after 6:30 PM. These items should be posted with a labeled “Time Certain.”
- Public hearings of citywide interest, such as budget hearings, utility rate hearings etc. may require a separate City Council Meting to accommodate the large number of speakers. When these hearings are added to a full agenda, with zoning cases and other lengthy discussion items, it can often be 11:00 PM, midnight, or even past 1:00 AM before all of the speakers for the public hearings can have their say.
- The City Council should make their best effort to arrange the time sequence of agenda items, so that they can be taken up in an orderly and efficient manner. Whenever the time certain arrives for a public hearing or discussion item, that item should proceed on time. Unfinished items should be postponed to later in the meeting, or until the next City Council Meeting.
- Consider holding zoning hearings on a separate day, if the agenda contains one or more items with large numbers of speakers anticipated.
- The City Council should make a realistic assessment of whether an agenda is so crowded with items that citizens would be inconvenienced unreasonably if they came down to speak. In those cases, the Council should move some of the items to a different day, or to a subsequent meeting. Citizens should not be expected to stay up past midnight to address the City Council.
- Whenever possible, public hearings and discussion items with large numbers of speakers should be scheduled ahead of other lengthy items. Give the citizens an opportunity to come to City Hall and speak, and then go home to their families at a respectable hour.
- While the mayor chairs the meetings and calls the agenda items, the City Council should establish a procedure that allows the entire Council to consider the order in which the items are called, as well as which items will be assigned a “time certain.” This determination of time sequencing could be taken up at the Tuesday work sessions. But the Council should still allow the flexibility for any Council member to make a motion during a meeting to shift the times for the items, based on the need to accommodate the convenience of public speakers.
What Can You Do to Help?
Email, tweet, and Facebook this blog posting to your friends. Then contact all seven City Council Members here, and ask for action on this reform.