Austin City Council will revisit ways to cut down long meetings

Sylvia Casper says it is disillusioning to see council members yawn (KXAN)
Sylvia Casper says it is disillusioning to see council members yawn (KXAN)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Going to an Austin City Council meeting has become synonymous with waiting. Waiting for an issue. Waiting to speak. Waiting to see if it was all worth it. It’s something the current Council worked to change by adding more committees, in hopes of shortening the meetings to encourage more public involvement.

Nearly a year into the job, on the eve of taking on its largest agenda yet, KXAN’s Kylie McGivern checked in to see how the Council is measuring up to its goal.

In January, City Council members agreed on the restructuring of committee meetings to shorten full council meetings.

“What we have all heard over the course of the campaign is many times people come to testify and have the feeling as they’re testifying, just before a vote is taken, that a decision has already been made,” Adler said, third day on the job back in January. “People are frustrated when they leave because they want to be part of the actual development and formulation of the ideas and resolutions. We’re not putting anybody off, we’re in fact giving people real opportunity to…have an impact and an effect on what it is that’s ultimately adopted.”

But it’s clear there’s still work to be done.

Sylvia Casper is one of dozens who stayed until around midnight at last week’s City Council meeting, waiting for her turn to speak at a meeting that ended at 2:25 a.m.

“It doesn’t affect you until it affects you,” Casper said, acknowledging, like many, she never envisioned herself spending hours on end in City Hall until an issue came up that hit close to home. Short term rentals.

“I’ve attended the infamous one that went until 3:00 in the morning. I was there about 10 hours. And then the second longest one was about 12 hours, and I was there from say 11:00 in the morning up until about 11:30-12:30 at night,” Casper said.

Sylvia: “It’s just – we have to do it, it’s, it’s difficult on the neighborhood and those who have something to say. But it’s our heart, and we need to be heard.”

Kylie:  “You say you have to do it, but SHOULD you have to do it?”

Sylvia: “No, actually we shouldn’t have to do this.”

“I think generally speaking, we’ve done a really good job with the duration and length of council meetings. We’ve had a lot of them that have ended early. Last week we were here for a long time, broke my heart,” Mayor Steve Adler told KXAN. “There were a lot of people that had to wait for a long time and that’s unfortunate, but when you have a lot of items that a lot of people want to speak on, we’re here too and we’ll stay as late as we need to, to make sure that we hear from everybody.”

“It is disillusioning sometimes when you have some in council, or the mayor even, yawning at that late of hour on such an important issue as it is, especially in making decisions and writing language that is supposed to represent the people,” Casper said.

A report from the city auditor showed Austin’s fiscal year 2014 meetings lasted about 9 and a half hours on average.That’s nearly double the time spent in council meetings compared to peer cities. That said, Austin’s city council at the time did consider about 15 percent more items.

“I think everybody on that dais is really conscience of wanting to make sure that the public is able to come and they’re able to get access and talk freely in a public hearing and to balance that against making sure that people don’t wait. So we’re going to continue to try and to refine our process and to really work toward making sure our meetings end earlier,” Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo told KXAN.

“This is a brand new process, a brand new form of government. We came in last year, I think we’ve done spectacular things, but yes, we can absolutely make it better and we’re doing to continue to do that,” Mayor Adler said.

The mayor said a group of council members are in the process of reviewing the transition from the old system to the new setup. Meeting length is expected to be a top item in that ongoing discussion.

City Council will meet again tomorrow at 10:00 a.m.

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