February 5, 2015
Austin’s new 10-1 City Council has embarked on the challenging task of changing the way City Hall does business. With an eye to increasing the quality and diversity of public input, the council’s new committee and hearing structure will hopefully alleviate the torturous practice of councils past to meet long into the wee hours of the morning. Achieving these goals is necessary to the success of our local small-d democratic project.
Necessary, but not sufficient. What we really need is a culture change at City Hall — not brought on by our new council members, but by the whole community that they collectively represent.
As a former council staffer, I can attest that long meetings are not conducive to good decisions and the stakeholder input informing those decisions is not nearly what it could be. Of the 800,000 constituents under the at-large system, we regularly heard from about 30 people. These were people we all knew well, and whose views we could almost always anticipate on a given issue. We definitely took special note when we heard from someone new.
Many of the folks who spoke at those hours-long council meetings had already had meetings, phone calls or e-mail exchanges with council members. It was uncommon for council members to learn new data or facts or hear new perspectives during these public hearings. Yes, council members usually had a good idea how they would vote before the public hearing, and those who testified could have spent that time living their lives with friends and family. Even the consultants who “get paid by the hour” to attend council meetings would almost always rather be attending to other priorities. If you thought the testimony was repetitive as a spectator, imagine what it was like on the other side of the dais, where similar points were made week after week.
An advocate I know and respect from my years at the City summed it up well — we have a “macho ThunderDome culture” at City Council, where the most hard-core regulars who wait it out for hours believe their input should have greater value than the input of others whose lives don’t allow them to stay, or sometimes to be physically present. Commitments to family or work shouldn’t mean that someone’s input is of less value.
In an age where a vast array of old and new technologies makes it easy to engage in public conversations, we need to change our culture of communicating to our local officials. It’s easy to make the time to call, tweet, email or post a comment on the city’s SpeakUpAustin.com discussion boards, and those comments should be taken just as seriously as those made in person at City Hall. Those of us who are council regulars should commit to ending this ThunderDome mentality and help the new City Council value public input no matter how it is shared, so we can trust them to make decisions informed by the full spectrum of community views.