June 22, 2016, 1:38 a.m. Most Austinites were asleep.
Their city leaders were deciding how to spend nearly three quarters of a billion dollars.
“I’m extremely conflicted on this because I’m just so disappointed in this process,” said Council Member Delia Garza ahead of the vote calling a transportation bond election. “We’re making a decision about $720 million at 1:35 in the morning after lengthy discussions.”
That nearly 17-hour June meeting, which lasted until 3 a.m., was the longest of the year for Austin City Council. But council meetings that go past 10 p.m., and even past midnight, are commonplace in Austin — and virtually unheard of in other large Texas cities.
This week, the council is expected to address that with a series of suggestions from Mayor Steve Adler, including that council meetings set a hard stop time of 11 p.m., limit public speakers more strictly and sometimes forgo ceremonial rituals like live music.
An American-Statesman review found that more than half of Austin’s regular voting City Council meetings, which start at 10 a.m., ran past 7 p.m. last year and six ran past midnight. By comparison, Dallas and San Antonio, which begin meetings at 9 a.m., typically wrapped up before 4 p.m. and never ran past 6.
Put another way, the median time of a regular voting meeting in 2016 was 10 hours in Austin, compared with six hours in Dallas, and five hours in San Antonio and Houston. (Houston meetings are broken into two, with a few hours of citizen input on Tuesday evenings and a few hours of voting on Wednesday mornings.)
Such meetings have long been tradition in Austin, a source of pride to some and scorn for others, a metaphor either for government mismanagement or an engaged, passionate public. An audit found that city meetings averaged nine and a half hours in 2014, under the previous City Council, nearly three times as long as peer cities.
Adler vowed to change that when he became mayor, saying in his 2015 inauguration speech: “You won’t have to be at City Hall at 3 a.m. just so your elected leaders can hear your voice.” Even so, a year later, then-Council Member Sheri Gallo lamented that many meetings were running past 10 p.m.
Adler’s suggestions, which the council is expected to consider Tuesday, include:
• Starting meetings earlier, at 9 or 9:30 a.m.
• Setting a hard end time for 11 p.m. for meetings, except to continue public hearings.
• Designating one meeting per month for large public hearings, with no cutoff time, and forgo an invocation, live music and proclamations.
• Allowing only 60 people to speak per item (unless unlimited speakers are required by law).
• Changing the allotted time per speaker to 2 minutes instead of 3 whenever more than 20 people sign up, or 1 minute after the first 20 people when more than 30 sign up.
• Not allowing people to sign up to speak once the council begins discussing an item.
“A lot of the ideas on that post have been out and about over the last couple years,” Adler said Friday. “We have not yet found the system that does everything we want it to do without unintended consequences.”
Such policies vary from city to city. Dallas, for example, limits discussion among council members to three rounds of comments, each with its time limited. Speakers for opposing sides are sometimes given a total time limit for particularly contentious items. Adler said he would consider all such ideas on the table in Austin, though he emphasized that especially strong public engagement will always be part of the culture here.
Also up for discussion this week is a review of Austin council committees, primarily consisting of four council members focused on certain topics with the goal of streamlining city business. Many council members agree that hasn’t happened.
“This was a council that did not seem inclined to let committees decide things,” Adler said. “Many times, the same discussions that took place at the committee hearings took place in front of the council. But that has not been the case all the time.”
Suggestions on the table for how to shift the committee structure include keeping some committees and disbanding others, and creating temporary ad hoc committees as needed for particular issues.
Austin’s long meetings have not escaped the attention of other city leaders. Dallas City Council Member Philip Kingston teasingly copied Austin City Council Member Greg Casar when former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley tweeted (not about Austin): “what self-respecting representative body conducts important public business at 1:10 am”
Casar, in an embrace of irony, responded: “we just had a long (!) meeting in order to discuss this yesterday.”
But in seriousness, Casar said he considers Austin’s long meetings a sign of good governance.
“People are always puzzled by how much work seems to be done at the dais over hours and hours,” he said. “Some of that is who we are — as Austin — and some of that is the Open Meetings Act.”
Council Member Ann Kitchen said the council was making progress on shortening meetings. She’d like to see more coordination between the mayor’s office and the city manager’s office to anticipate the length of agenda items beforehand.
“That’s not an exact science, of course, and it’s important to allow for public input,” she said. “We just need to do a better job of managing.”
Adler ruefully remembered his goal to shorten meetings to great audience laughter as two new council members were sworn into office this month.
“The job looks so easy from the outside,” he said. “I said there was no reason for a meeting to run past midnight. And then you realize you’re accountable to every person who comes here. Yes, the meetings sometimes run too long, and we’ll work on that. But it’s like life — the days are long and the years are short.”
By the numbers: City Council meetings in 2016
16: Austin meetings that went past 7 p.m.
1: Austin meeting that ended before 4 p.m.
0: Dallas meetings that went past 7 p.m.
14: Dallas meetings that ended before 4 p.m.
0: San Antonio meetings that went past 7 p.m.
17: San Antonio meetings that ended before 4 p.m.
Source: American-Statesman review
What we reported
The American-Statesman first drew attention to the Austin City Council’s past-midnight meetings in June 2014, under the old seven-member council. An audit that December found the average Austin meeting lasted 9½ hours, nearly three times longer than other similar cities’ meetings. Many of the candidates running in 2014 for seats on the new 11-member City Council vowed to rein in late-night meetings.