Report: Austin City Council meetings are much longer than other cities’


Nine hours and 31 minutes.

That’s how long the average Austin City Council meeting lasted in fiscal 2014.

It’s also nearly three times as long as the average time that such peer cities as Dallas, San Antonio, San Jose and Phoenix spend at their council meetings. The average among those peer cities was 3 hours and 24 minutes, according to a report by Austin’s city auditor.

Released last week, this council-solicited report examined a vexing question that anyone who has ever gone before the Austin City Council has pondered: Why are their meetings so long?

Among the conclusions reached by the city auditor’s report:

  • Austin has fewer meetings than its peer cities. The average number of meetings by the other cities was 35 per year. Austin had 24.
  • The council tackles more agenda items than other cities, with an average of 87 agenda items per meeting compared with 52 from the peer cities.
  • It’s not the public input time. The report found that the two main time drains were the executive session and zoning issues.

Austin’s City Council has a history of long meetings, with the famous all-night meeting on June 7, 1990, that ended around 6 a.m. and led to the development of the Save Our Springs ordinance.

Still, depending on who is mayor, the general growth of the city and personalities of council members, the council hasn’t always been long-winded. City activists say it’s gotten worse in recent years, damaging the ability of people to testify when decisions happen late in the night.

The council meetings, which start at 10 a.m. Thursdays, have run past midnight eight times this year. The June 12 meeting adjourned at 3:32 a.m.

Following that June meeting, the council’s longest in five years, the American-Statesman wrote about the council’s habit of meetings creeping into the wee hours of the night, prompting calls for reform from council members and City Hall activists.

Council Member Sheryl Cole said the auditor’s report didn’t fully acknowledge that Austin is unique in that it owns a utility, an airport and “we have more enterprise funds” than other cities. “We have a lot more growth and prosperity than other cities so we have more zoning cases,” she said.

The auditor’s report nudges the council to consider “best practices” in other cities that could make their meetings shorter. For instance, some cities conduct more public input outside the council meeting process, others rely more heavily on council committees, or have a committee just devoted to agenda planning. Another recommendation involved putting controversial items first on the agenda.

The report even delicately suggests that the mayor — whose job it is to run the meetings — may influence the length of meetings. “The presiding officer is key in keeping meeting administration efficient and focused,” the report says. “This includes limiting the scope of debate when issues veer off topic or become repetitive.”

(Mayor Lee Leffingwell generally does support a policy of giving each side 30 minutes of testimony during controversial issues, and all public speakers are limited to three minutes.)

City Council candidates have seized on the issue of long meetings on the campaign trail this year, pledging to cure that problem when they are elected. But when the revamped council takes office in January with four additional members, the meetings could be even longer.

City Council Member Mike Martinez, who is running for mayor against eminent domain attorney Steve Adler, said that as mayor he would support having more frequent meetings. For instance, in 2015 the council is set to meet 26 times, compared with the Travis County Commissioners Court, which meets all 52 weeks of the year.

“Simply having a regularly occurring council meeting” would help, Martinez said. He added that the council could adhere to true “time certains” in which high-interest items are heard at specific times during the day, or holding Saturday council meetings on controversial items.

This Thursday, the City Council has an agenda with 231 items, the longest in at least five years.

Well aware of its unflattering legacy of long meetings, the City Council discussed ways at its Tuesday work session to split the meeting into two days or shorten it. Eventually, the council members settled on deciding in the afternoon what items would be heard later or pushed off to the next day.

“It would be really ironic, in a good way, if on our very last meeting we finally figured out how to manage our time,” joked Council Member Bill Spelman.



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