January 14, 2016
RECA's January Ideas Forum featuring a look at the 10-1 City Council system by local political media took place yesterday at The Four Seasons Hotel. If you weren't there, you missed the opportunity to hear insiders weigh in about how the 10-1 City Council system has gone so far after its first year in place.
Walt Maciborksi of K-EYE News served as moderator and the panelists included Mike Kanin of the Austin Monitor, Andra Lim of the Austin American-Statesman, Mike Theis of the Austin Business Journal and Joe Lanane of Community Impact News.
A special thank you to Jackson Walker LLP for sponsoring the luncheon.
Until last year, Austin’s City Council was composed of six at-large City Council seats and one at-large mayor. In 2015, that system was replaced with 10 single-member City Council seats and an at-large mayor. More than 70 candidates ran for office under the new system, and among the winners, only one had previous City Council experience (Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo).
The panelists generally agreed that the City Council had done well getting acquainted with how the system works.
"They've definitely learned the difference between campaigning and being an elected official," Kanin said. "It's a little bit like when you drive that new car off the lot."
But the learning curve has led to an overall slow down in policy making, and Lim pointed out that five City Council meetings last year lasted past midnight.
"I wish the council understood that we have a 5 o'clock, 6 o'clock and 10 o'clock newscast so they could wrap everything up for us in time," Maciborski joked.
The City Council was faced with some major decisions over the last year including the budget, short-term rentals, transportation networking companies, the Zucker Report and their lawsuit against commercial property owners.
When it came to zoning case decisions, the panel said there's been no real consistent trend or record, but they have observed that the council is not falling prey to ward politics like many feared under the new geographically representative system.
"They have been very sensitive to avoid ward politics," Lim said. "They have made an effort to show that even though something may be in their district, they have concern for its impact on the whole city."
The City Council implemented a new committee system in which smaller groups of council members review and make recommendations on an item before it gets to the full council. The panelists said that process still needs to be refined.
"It's been frustrating to watch as items get chewed on endlessly," Kanin said. "Of course, there should be some discussion, but you have to move things forward at some point."
Lanane pointed out that some of the new City Council's processes and procedures have been confusing to the general public.
"It's hard to say how these committees have impacted boards and commissions and vice versa," he said. "There's some confusion about who should have a say in what."
In November, five City Council seats will be up for re-election including Council Members Greg Casar, Sheri Gallo, Delia Garza, Leslie Pool and Don Zimmerman.
Big numbers are expected at the polls, as this will be the first time an Austin City Council election will appear on the same ballot as a Presidential election, and the panelists expected campaign rhetoric to heat up from the dais.
"These council members will have to run for re-election, and that is certainly going to change the tenor of the conversation going forward," Kanin said.