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New Council Introduces Era of More Meetings

Callie Hernandez/KUT News.
In the first few months of 2014, Council members spent about 34.3 hours in committee meetings, and this Council has spent 108.15 hours so far.

From the Austin Monitor: In January, there was a shake-up at City Hall, with Austin ushering in its first geographically based City Council. Now, six months later, what has it meant? Most obviously, a lot more meetings.

Videos available on the city’s website show that the amount of time the new Council had spent in meetings from February through June 23, 2015, increased approximately 121 percent over the previous Council during the same span in 2014 — from 152.6 hours to 337.9 hours.

Broken down by category, the new Council is meeting more on all fronts. Regular Council meetings have increased about 47.3 percent, from 84.5 hours in 2014 to 124.5 hours this year. Council work sessions have doubled, from 33.8 hours in 2014 to 67.7 hours this year. And, as expected under the reconstructed Council committee system, Council committee times have more than tripled. In the first few months of 2014, Council members spent about 34.3 hours in committee meetings, and this Council has spent 108.15 hours so far.

Finally, there is the addition of “other” meetings. For the purpose of this comparison, the Austin Monitor included the policy “deep dives” that took place after February 1, 2015. The time spent totaled 37.4 hours, and there were no similar meetings held by the previous Council.

Somewhat ironically, the more-frequent meetings were in reaction to a city audit that showed that Austin’s meetings were much longer, on average, than other cities’, along with concerns that Council meetings frequently ran late. In order to get at fixing the system, one of Mayor Steve Adler’s first orders of business was to swiftly implement many of the recommendations of that audit, which can be read in its entirety on the city’s website.

When he spoke with the Monitor about recent meeting times on Tuesday, Adler remained upbeat about the changes and stressed that he would be open to more adjustments in the future.

“I think there are lots of changes that need to be made,” said Adler. “I think that it’s an iterative process, and there are ways to make it better on lots of levels. But I like the process. I like meeting more frequently and not as late. It troubled me when Council was meeting until midnight and 3 o’clock in the morning.

“I’m also encouraged at the Council doing less policymaking on the dais — less work when an issue comes up, and people are pulling out their pens and trying to imagine what might be a good solution. Because I think that leads to decisions that are not vetted and wise. I think if you look and compare where we were before, you have to look at not only the number of meetings, but how long they last and how things are vetted before they actually get to us,” said Adler.

Adler also pointed out that the process is getting smoother as new Council members become more familiar with the system. He said that a lot of the questions that took up meeting time initially are now being asked and answered during other times, and “customs and practices” are beginning to develop on the dais.

And how do the changes stack up against the audit? For those who prefer swift-moving local government, not that well. For context: Last November, at the behest of Council, the Office of the City Auditor studied peer city governments to see how Austin’s Council meeting management stacked up. The audit found that peer cities generally met more often and for less time than Austin, and often used work sessions and separate meetings for briefings, executive sessions, zoning and public input to keep things manageable.

At the time, Austin’s Council committees met between four and 15 times a year, for an average of 10 times a year. This was slightly below the peer city average of 12 meetings per Council committee per year.

Under the new system, several Council committees have already far surpassed that peer city average. Since March, when the new system was put in place, Council committees have met total of 41 times.

In the audit, the analysis showed that Austin had an average of 24 regular meetings per year, that those meetings had an average length of nine hours and 31 minutes, and that the average agenda had 87 items on it. During Fiscal Year 2014, Council met for a total of 228.4 hours and had a total of 2,088 agenda items.

In comparison, the average peer city met 35 times for about three hours and 24 minutes and heard about 52 agenda items each meeting. On average, the peer cities spent about 119 hours in Council meetings each year and heard a total of 1,820 items.

Those figures, unlike our own calculations, included executive sessions, which according to the audit took up about two hours each meeting.

Still, even not counting the reduction that comes from subtracting executive sessions — though they have become more frequent — the new Council’s meetings tend to be longer than peer cities’ (though shorter than the previous Council’s). The average regular Council meeting so far has been 7.32 hours.

When asked how these increased meeting times have impacted city staff, a city spokesperson remained taciturn, for now. A statement to the Monitor on the subject reads:

“The new Council and committee structure has impacted staff commitments and daily operations because staff is supporting more meetings now. … City employees who provide direct support to Council operations are more heavily impacted on a day-to-day basis by the change, such as the City Manager’s Office, the Agenda Office, Office of the City Clerk, the City’s ATXN video streaming team, information technology support, and custodial staff.”

Editor’s note regarding our methodology: All the data was compiled by analyzing videos available on the city’s website, here. As noted earlier, City Council executive sessions were not included in the comparison of 2014 to 2015, although they were included in the 2014 city audit. Additionally, Austin Housing Finance Corporation meeting times were not included in either comparison (though they are minimal). Budget work sessions were included as work sessions.