We’re nearly a year into the Austin City Council’s latest push to rein in its late-night meetings. And if, like me, you were watching as the April 26 meeting ran into April 27, with a big debate on rentable scooters starting after midnight and a critical CodeNext discussion running from 2 to 3 a.m., then you know how well that’s going.
Sadly, we’re so inured to late-night council meetings that we’ve accepted this is how Austin does things: Bleary-eyed council members cast important votes while most of the city sleeps, and civic engagement suffers because who can commit that kind of time to being involved?
Austin faces many challenging problems. This shouldn’t be one of them.
Two weeks after the April 26-27 barn burner, I found myself at a different city meeting — this one mercifully in the light of day at the Austin History Center — where an ambitious group of open government types talked about several efforts to boost transparency at City Hall.
They’re excited about the improved collaboration between groups seeking to end homelessness. They urged the public to check out the new Grackle tool (online at grackle.austintexas.io), which provides reader-friendly, at-a-glance summaries of certain city projects.
But they were the first to admit the effort to end late-night council meetings wasn’t going well.
“The initial changes didn’t have a positive outcome,” said Raymond Weyandt, a consultant reviewing Austin’s progress on five goals the city set for itself a year ago as a member of the Open Government Partnership. The city joined this international group in 2016 to affirm its commitment to transparency and get third-party feedback on its pursuit of specific goals.
A few years ago, when the new 10-1 City Council took office, the members made an earnest effort to shorten council meetings by steering more public comment and policy crafting into committee meetings. Unfortunately that merely created more meetings without making the full council gatherings any shorter.
Last May, as part of the Open Government Partnership effort, the council approved other changes to shorten meetings, primarily by tightening some limits on public comment.
Each person still gets up to 3 minutes to speak on any agenda item. Under the old rules, you could get up to four people to sign up to speak and donate their 3-minute blocks to you, potentially giving you 15 minutes of time at the mic. Now only two people can donate time to the same speaker, and depending on how many people signed up, they can donate only 1-2 minutes. So, at best, a speaker can cobble together 7 minutes.
Austin staffers suggested other ideas, such as encouraging council members to pose their questions to staff in writing on a public message board, which in turn would free up the Tuesday work sessions for discussions among council members instead of so much live questioning of staff. That, in turn, could streamline some of the discussion at the Thursday council meetings, where spectators currently see much of the sausage being made.
But if you’ve peeked at the council work sessions or the message board, you’ll see not much has changed on those fronts.
Since the public comment limits were revised last May, half of the regular council meetings have run past 10 p.m., including the one this Thursday, which ended right at that mark. Six meetings since last May have gone past midnight, with a seventh stopping just a few minutes short of that.
That’s on par with our last count in 2016, when the council had six post-midnight meetings (keep in mind, the meetings start at 10 a.m.). By comparison, American-Statesman reporter Elizabeth Findell wrote then, Dallas and San Antonio started their meetings at 9 a.m. and typically wrapped up before 4 p.m., never running past 6.
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want meetings to be too efficient. If everything is predetermined and meetings merely serve a rubber-stamp function, the public misses the opportunity to influence policy and understand how city decisions are made. But there’s got to be a happy medium that doesn’t turn democratic participation into an endurance challenge.
I caught up with Council Member Alison Alter during a break in Thursday’s meeting, and she agreed the late-night meetings are “completely unfair to citizens and completely unfair to our staff.”
She noted the council has scheduled separate meetings to handle specific high-interest issues, such as the Dec. 13 meeting on the Austin police contract and upcoming meetings on CodeNext. She’d like to see more of that strategy, along with better use of the council’s committees and advisory boards. And she’s hopeful that new City Manager Spencer Cronk will bring other strategies to the table.
At the risk of being too simplistic, some agendas are just stacked with too many items. By my math, the regular council meetings since last May averaged 79 items per agenda, but the meetings that ran past 10 p.m. averaged 98 items per agenda. Some weeks the council is trying to cram a 10-pound meeting into a 5-pound bag.
Let us resolve: Good government shall be rooted in good meetings, held at times truly accessible to the public, and decisions shall be made at hours when council members still feel sharp.
All in favor?