Austin City Council starts new year, proposes changes in public hearing process

Jackie Wang

Members of the Austin City Council are considering making structural changes to the Council’s decision-making process and will discuss the proposed changes at a public hearing Thursday. 

The Council, which began its term Jan. 6, will discuss moving government hearings to committees before making decisions at general, public meetings.

City Council member Kathie Tovo, the only City Council member who has served previous terms, said restructuring a new decision making process is among council’s top priorities. Tovo said not all hearings would be restricted to committee meetings.

“We are soliciting feedback from the public,” Tovo said. “Most hearings will be moved to committees, but some will still have to be heard in front of the Council, such as zoning and annexation. There are [topics] required by city ordinance, and some by state law, to be heard in front of Council.” 

Mayor Steve Adler said he thinks the restructuring will make public engagement more meaningful.

“Every district representative is chairing a citywide committee and needs to develop a citywide constituency,” Adler said. “Traffic, congestion and affordability are citywide issues. Since those are most pressing, we’ve come out of the box real quickly to restructure the way we do government.”

Adler said he did not realize how much the public wants to participate in local government before his election.

“One of the real takeaways was the sheer number of people that were calling offices when we weren’t there,” Adler said. “It was overwhelming — the number of people who want to talk with one and all of the City Council members.”

The City Council will hold a public discussion about moving hearings to committees before coming to an ultimate decision at a general Council meeting.

City Council member Ann Kitchen said she appreciated how the City Council united to tackle its first initiative.

“I’m excited that we were able to do that unanimously,” Kitchen said. “We learned at orientation ways we can continue to work together for the things that we all [agree upon]. I think everybody is working on the same page. There are some differences across the districts in terms of how we fix things, but we’re all in agreement [on this].”

Last week, the new City Council completed a three-day orientation. Tovo said she enjoyed the opportunity to get to know the other City Council members. 

“I had an opportunity to meet with all Council members and do introductions — to hear their ideas and share mine,” Tovo said. 

Adler said orientation is meant to be informative, but it’s also a chance for new members to discuss ideas.

“The session on open meetings generated a lot of conversation,” Adler said. “We have to find the right balance in that area. A lot of it is nuts and bolts — not romantic or sexy stuff, but important stuff.”

City Council member Ora Houston said the logistics of City operations are the most challenging to learn.

“There’s so much to learn, and now I can see how the City operates behind the curtain,” Houston said.