- The Austin City Council has proposed major changes to the rules governing public participation in its meetings
- If approved, speakers will not be allowed to donate time to one another or be able to remove controversial items from the council’s consent agenda
- State law mandates the public be allowed to speak before or during discussion of an agenda item during an open meeting
This Thursday, June 1, the Austin City Council has a resolution on its consent agenda (Item #36) to adopt new procedures for public participation in council meetings. Two of the proposed changes are concerning:
- Disallowing a person from donating their speaking time to another speaker
- Changing the rules to keep items on the consent portion of the agenda even when the public wants to speak on them
Disallowing Time Donation
The council proposes to change its rules to disallow a person attending a council meeting from donating his or her speaking time to another speaker. This change abandons a longstanding practice that allows the public to make a more effective and efficient presentation by combining testimony. One or two minutes allowed for an individual speaker is rarely enough time for a member of the public to address complicated issues. Additionally, time donation enables a person vitally interested in an issue but uncomfortable with public speaking to have his or her views expressed through another. Discarding the time donation rule serves no purpose other than to hobble public participation.
The consent portion of the agenda is designed for noncontroversial items to be grouped together and voted on collectively. To prevent the council from abusing the consent agenda and including controversial items, the rules currently provide that an item may not be adopted by consent if two or more persons have registered to testify on an item. The council proposes to remove that provision (and the time donation provision) and, ironically enough, has put it on the consent agenda. The council should not get to decide what is controversial and worthy of discussion and a separate vote—the public does.
The public’s ability to remove items from the consent and donate speaking time is essential for representative government in Austin, and taking these away is far from a routine council decision. By limiting public participation, the Austin City Council is undermining the democratic process.
The council would be well-served to heed its own rules, which proclaim:
- Useful public debate at its meetings is served by the fair and impartial administration of rules of order.
- Democracy is best served by participation of people in their government.
- Austin’s exercise of representative democracy is well-served by the timely and substantial participation of its citizens.
Besides being essential for democracy, public participation at city council meetings is mandated by state law:
A governmental body shall allow each member of the public who desires to address the body regarding an item on an agenda for an open meeting of the body to address the body regarding the item at the meeting before or during the body’s consideration of the item. (Tex. Gov’t Code § 551.007(b))
Consequences: An agenda item passed without an opportunity for public comment may be voidable.
This Thursday, the Austin City Council will try to pass by consent new procedures which clearly diminish public participation and council accountability. Let its members know it is not okay—that you do not consent.