Work Sessions Stir Concern Over Tying Up Staff

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Marc Ott
Marc Ott

Council Work Sessions Stir Concern Over Tying Up Staff for Two Meetings

City Manager Presents Summary of Options for Council Consideration

Marc Ott
Marc Ott

In the wake of the Austin City Council’s first work session in recent memory, held February 9, City Manager Marc Ott told the city council he was concerned about the new policy of conducting Wednesday work sessions in advance of the regular Thursday council meetings, where decisions are made and votes are cast.

“It potentially has an adverse impact on productivity because we have so many people … dedicated to two meetings,” KUT radio reported February 9.

The work sessions were reinstituted after Travis County Attorney David Escamilla announced on January 25 that he was conducting an inquiry in response to a complaint about possible violations of the Texas Open Meetings Act.

The mayor and council members have been reluctant to publicly state that the work sessions were instituted because of Escamilla’s inquiry—in spite of the fact the private meetings among the mayor and council members were immediately cancelled and the first work session was held the day before the next city council meeting.

Bill Spelman
Bill Spelman

But Council Member Bill Spelman conceded as much in a February 9 interview with KUT radio: “That may have been the original genesis behind it (initiating work sessions) but I think anything which allows us to talk freely with one another is a good idea and leads to better decision-making on all of our parts,” he said.

Mayor Lee Leffingwell described the work sessions like this: “It’s kind of like a pre-council meeting,” according to a February 10 report by KXAN-TV.

On February 10, the Austin American-Statesman reported that City Manager Ott asked during the work session whether the city’s department heads would have to spend every other Wednesday on call to answer council questions. Or should the council use the sessions to simply talk with one another—in lieu of the now-cancelled individual meetings.

After that meeting, Ott said he would bring his team together “and dissect what it is going to take for us to prepare ourselves for both a work session, study session, pre-Council meeting—whatever it ends up being called—as well as the regular Council meeting,” In Fact Daily reported February 10.

The council’s second work session is scheduled to begin at 1:30pm tomorrow, February 16, in the Boards and Commissions Room at City Hall, 301 W. Second St. The agenda includes an item for discussion and possible action on work session procedures. No action will be taken and there will be no citizen participation during the work session. Citizens will be permitted to address agenda items at the regularly scheduled City Council meeting on Thursday, February 17, 2011.

Larry Schooler, the city’s community engagement consultant, said in an interview with KUT radio on February 9 that the city council had asked for a review of “best practices” in other cities and had gotten a memo from the city manager that outlines a number of different ways that other city councils elsewhere in the country discuss their agendas prior to a public vote and public comment. “This is going to have to be a work in progress,” Schooler said.

Possible meeting options

The city manager issued that memo to the council February 7, two days before the first work session was held, and outlines a sampling of procedures used by a variety of other cities for conducting meetings other than regular council meetings.

(1) Committee of the whole—Considers matters usually not heard by Council standing committees, involve in-depth discussions on major initiatives, emergency issues, or items requiring initial hearing by all council members. These meetings allow focusing deliberations on a single issue and formal action if necessary.

(2) Work or study sessions—Council members are often briefed by staff, the main purpose being to give council members a chance to delve deeply into an issue, often on matters that are controversial or complex, eliminating unnecessary debate during a regular council meeting. Councils generally do not take formal action at these meetings. Except for regular meetings and executive sessions, these are the most common form of municipal meeting held by governing bodies today.

(3) Business meetings—Allows a city council to take formal action to approve contracts, approve bids or pass capital infrastructure and construction-related ordinances. These meetings are not popular but are sometimes used by smaller to mid-size cities.

(4) Pre-agenda or pre-meeting sessions—The entire city council convenes an informal session to ask city staff questions about specific agenda items in advance of the next regular meeting. These are informational in nature and typically no formal action is taken. These meetings give staff additional time to do further research while streamlining the regular meeting process and enhance information made available to the council and public.

The city manager did not recommend a particular option and he was not available to answer questions today.

Reyne Telles, the city’s media relations manager, said the city manager’s memo provides a “menu of options to the council.”

Ott came from Fort Worth

The Austin Bulldog checked with the City of Fort Worth, where Ott served as assistant city manager from May 2002 through early January 2008, when he was hired as Austin’s city manager. Fort Worth has been holding what it calls “Pre-Council Meetings” for many years. The city’s website displays agendas for such meetings going back to September 2003 and still continue, with the latest agenda posted for today.

The City of Fort Worth held 44 Pre-Council Meetings in calendar year 2007, according to the city’s website. That was Ott’s last full year as assistant city manager. His name appeared on six of those Pre-Council Agendas between July 17, 2007, and December 11, 2007, as well as the Pre-Council Agenda for January 8, 2008. The press release announcing that Ott was hired as Austin’s city manager was issued January 17, 2008.

In Fort Worth, the Pre-Council Meetings are held earlier on the same day as regular Tuesday City Council meetings.

Bill Begley of the city’s media and public affairs office says the Pre-Council Agendas are usually shorter than the regular council meeting agendas, and cover such items of business as the city manager’s report, other informal reports, updates on issues, and some items requiring discussion and debate. Pre-Council Agendas do not list items scheduled to be on the consent agenda for the later regular council meetings, he said.

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