If you’ve ever attended an Austin City Council meeting, you know public testimony can sometimes drag on for hours.
Before the vote on mandatory paid sick days for private employees, for example, council members heard more than four hours of public testimony. When the City Council was weighing whether to approve a new contract between the city and the police union in 2017, residents spoke for nearly six hours.
That’s the beauty of democracy.
But many elected officials aren’t hearing anything new during these hours-long stretches of public comment.
“There’s frankly very little testimony we hear at a public meeting that has not already been sent to us or been said in a public meeting that we’ve attended in our communities and our districts,” said District 6 Council Member Jimmy Flannigan. “So, it’s not so much that there’s no value to it, but by the time we get to Thursday, we’ve already heard it.”
When it comes to issues affecting fewer people, like zoning cases, council members said they’re more likely to walk in undecided.
“On some smaller items that are more dry and more boring, where we may not have had meetings with constituents and community members before … sometimes things do get more sorted out on the dais,” said Council Member Greg Casar.
But both Casar and Flannigan said they know where they stand before walking into council chambers, especially on controversial issues. None of the five council members KUT reached could think of a time when he or she changed a vote because of something a citizen said during public testimony.
Given this, what is the point of public comment?
Chenhao Tan does not want to answer that.
“I usually try to avoid that question, to be honest,” he said.
Tan was part of a group of researchers at Cornell University who published a study in 2016 on persuasive language. They considered a thread on Reddit called “Change My View,” where users post their opinions on issues and challenge people to change their minds.
Topics range from the serious – climate change and prison – to a debate over the best part of the pizza. (It’s the crust, argues the original poster.)
Tan and his fellow researchers considered what kind of language proved more persuasive. Hedging, or being unsure of yourself, helps; so does using phrases like, “It could be the case.”
“This kind of language is softer, which makes the other side more willing to accept it,” he said.
Some of the study results are likely not surprising: Using personal pronouns and specific examples make for a more successful argument.
Casar said he vividly recalled public testimony from September 2016 when council members were deliberating over the budget. That year, news outlets revealed the local DNA lab had a serious backlog of rape evidence kits to be processed. Numerous sexual assault survivors showed up to give public comment on the budget, urging council members to approve funds to clear the backlog.
Two years later, Casar remembered the testimony of one woman.
“Hi, my name is Marina Conner,” she said, standing at the podium set up for citizens to appeal to council. “I’m a third-year student at the University of Texas, and my rape kit has been in the backlog for one year and 22 days.”
Conner, who is now part of a class-action lawsuit alleging local agencies mishandled sexual assault cases, described her rape to the council.
“It was so powerful and so overwhelming to me, even though I’d already heard it,” Casar said. He said hearing Conner tell her story in front of strangers made him certain that the funding he was about to vote for, which would speed up the processing of rape evidence kits, was imperative.
It didn’t change his mind; it just made him more certain of his view.
“There’s just so much bravery and courage involved with standing there at the podium, in front of the whole City Council, on TV, in front of all of these people,” he said.
Even if a person's ability to change an elected official’s mind is limited, there’s still the chance to persuade a fellow citizen, said activist Eric Goff.
“Oftentimes, people will testify and then other people that are in the room will walk up and say, ‘Oh, we share this common value and it’s a chance to organize in the future,’” said Goff, who serves on the board of the nonprofit AURA, which advocates for urbanist issues.
Goff said he first met fellow activists when he testified at council.
“You hear somebody’s testimony and you’re like, ‘Who is that?’” said Chris Harris, who works for Grassroots Leadership and often testifies on criminal justice issues. “You can meet like-minded folks and potential comrades.”
Heyden Black Walker is an urban planner who often testifies in front of City Council. She said while she has never seen an elected official change a vote while sitting on the dais, she views public testimony as more of a long game.
“I have definitely seen council members kind of evolve over time,” said Walker, who advocates for safer streets for pedestrians and cyclists.
She said she’s seen Council Member Ann Kitchen, who serves on several transportation committees and boards, change her views over the past several years.
“I have seen her become … more comfortable, really, advocating for streets that are safe for all people,” Walker said. (Kitchen agreed with her characterization.)
“[Public testimony] brings a different perspective than what they get from their council staff, or what they get from the transportation department staff or what they get from Capital Metro," Walker said. "They’re multiple perspectives that they’re considering, and I think that’s really important.”