Ten months ago, Austin City Hall was confronted with the same challenge facing local governments everywhere: public hearings had to move forward, but residents had to be kept safe from COVID-19.
Unfortunately, the online-video process the city council developed for zoning cases is failing our community. The current format sidelines Austinites concerned about changes proposed for their neighborhoods and local businesses, and it unfairly tilts the process in favor of the land developers seeking zoning changes.
When it comes to zoning cases, city code and the council’s rules of procedure are clear: The city is to make an initial background presentation, the applicant (usually a land developer) is given a chance to state its case, and residents may add their own perspectives, either for or against. The applicant is then allowed to close.
This approach allowed for evenhanded consideration of all viewpoints.
In response to the pandemic, however, the mayor and council have created a disjointed format that hinders public input and violates city law. Participating residents are not given an opportunity to address the council when it considers individual zoning cases; they are instead forced to speak during a single chaotic call-in period, all at once and in random order.
Since many cases are on every hearing’s agenda, the public testimony quickly jumps from one case to another, and speakers make their appearances hours before their cases are called. It is impossible for council members and the public to follow the residents’ comments, to put them into proper context, and to engage in any meaningful dialogue with them. The process makes a mockery of public participation.
Land developers are allowed to play by different rules. They have the freedom to testify on their zoning applications in real time, at the moment the council takes the cases up for consideration. Residents don’t have an opportunity to respond in any way.
This is obviously unfair to everyday Austinites, but the 2020 council nonetheless grew comfortable with the process—even going so far as to approve hotly contested cases on three readings with single votes.
The problem isn’t caused by technology or the need for social distancing: Austin’s Planning Commission, for instance, takes speakers separately for each individual zoning item, after the staff presentation and applicant testimony. The issue is instead rooted in the council’s lack of respect for local residents and their right to participate in decisions that impact their neighborhoods and community.
Fortunately, Council Member Alison Alter recently called for a review and revision of the hearing process, and the city manager indicated he will look into the matter. We support that initiative. If you do too, please contact the mayor and council members using the information below and demand that they stop hearing zoning cases until the process is fixed. Doing so will give the city an incentive to move quickly.
Together we can build an Austin for everyone!
You may send a single email to the mayor and all council members using this form.