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Council Looks to Work Out Kinks in New Meeting Process

Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon/KUT
Long lines and deep crowds are nothing new to those familiar with Austin City Council meetings, but a new meeting structure aims to cut down on the council's historically long meeting times.

Officially, the Austin City Council meets every other week. This would've been an off week. But, this new council has so much to learn and so much to do that unofficially, it meets virtually all the time.

In a special called meeting today, the council will try to work out how the new meetings system will work.

Austin City Council meetings are normally long. If you are wondering what "long" means, check out what happened on June 7, 1990, when the council was hearing public testimony on a development near Barton Creek. After hours of testimony, late Council Member Robert Barnstone finally couldn't take it any longer.

He rose from his seat and screamed, "Speaker after speaker, for now more than fifteen hours, has come here and said to us that this is where we draw the line."

You may think Barnstone was talking about drawing the line at long meetings, but the line on long meetings was not drawn that day.

Barnstone was referring to testimony provided by more than 800 Austinites who signed up to speak, and sometimes even sing, on behalf of Barton Springs and against a development that wanted to build nearby. The council adjourned at 5:55 a.m., though, contrary to Barnstone's estimation, the testimony lasted 13 and a half hours, according to the council's minutes.

District 4 Council Member Greg Casar says that's the way things were done in the past, for decades.

"In the past, to get something done at City Hall, there had to be lots of conversations prior to a vote," Casar says. Those conversations were typically spearheaded by citizens going door to door, from one council member's office to the next council member's office, basically lobbying for the council's support on any issue.

The next tactic, Casar says, was to bring plenty of "citizen pressure" before a vote. That process, in part, made the meetings long.

But that's not going to happen anymore under the new meeting structure, which will divvy up council responsibilities among committees, with some members taking point on specific issues.

Got any ideas to promote affordability in Austin? Talk to District 2's Delia Garza. She is leading that fight.

Got an issue with public safety? Go talk to District 6's Don Zimmerman.

There are still some kinks in the process that need to be worked out. Casar says one kink would be figuring out the best times to hold council committee meetings.

Today some of those questions will be answered, but the next official council meeting is Feb. 26.

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
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