Last Thursday, the Leander City Council approved a change to its meeting schedule that will create a separate twice-monthly meeting of council members, so council members can meet with the City Manager and department directors about items on the council’s upcoming agenda.
Unlike regular council meetings, this meeting will be held in the city’s San Gabriel Conference Room, and unlike regular council meetings, this briefing will not be recorded or live streamed.
The reasons for the meeting seem plain enough, and hard to argue. Currently, city council members individually schedule time with the City Manager to ask questions relevant to policy, procedure and upcoming items on the agenda.
According to Mayor Troy Hill, those meetings take an “astronomical” amount of the City Manager’s time — up to 20 hours per month. And, there’s the possibility that one council member may ask a question in such a way as to get different information than other council members.
Hill’s proposal to schedule a separate staff briefing session, or as he called it during the June 6 council meeting, a “packet meeting,” seems reasonable given those circumstances.
Leander spokesperson Mike Neu said the new approach could improve open discussions during council meetings. He noted previous council discussions involved conversations with staff about technical terms and questions that were difficult to follow. He said the briefing meeting could allow council members to ask questions, learn new information, and then reiterate the questions and facts in a more understandable format during the council meeting itself.
One argument Hill made in support of the proposal, was having researched what other cities have done to improve efficiency when having the City Manager and various department heads respond to questions from council members.
“The idea was to look at best practices from other cities,” Hill said, specifically citing Duncanville, Texas, as an example. Duncanville was the only city named as an example, and ironically, Duncanville is also the city where Leander’s recently-fired City Manager — Kent Cagle — served as City Manager before coming to Leander in 2011.
We can’t argue with the goal of improving efficiency, and taking steps to ensure that all council members receive the same information.
We do, however, have concerns about taking the back-and-forth discussion between council members and city staff out of the public eye. While minutes of the meetings will be kept, those minutes will not provide a transcript of exactly what was said by which person. All of the work done by the city council and city employee is the public’s business. The nature of questions, concerns or comments expressed by council members should be a precisely detailed in the public record.
Leander City Council meetings are already live streamed and available for replay at a later time. If a quorum of the council will be present at these staff briefing sessions, there should be recordings of those proceedings as well.
That these meetings will be ‘open to the public’ is not sufficient. They’ll be held in a much smaller room, where seating for the public will be less than current council meetings. And, not everyone who is interested in a public meeting can always attend in person — especially parents with young children or those whose work schedules conflict with scheduled meetings.
In our research on the story, we learned that the Duncanville City Council does indeed hold separate staff briefings (called work session/briefings). It also holds them in a separate conference room. However, those briefings are recorded and available to the public for replay, so that every question and comment by a council member becomes part of the public record.
Georgetown, Round Rock and Austin all hold separate meetings between council members and their respective city managers. Most are held in regular council chambers. All are made available for live stream and replay at a later time. Austin provides a written transcript of the entire audio feed from its meetings.
Cedar Park doesn’t hold staff briefing meetings with a quorum of council members, according to city spokesperson Jennie Huerta. She said Cedar Park did hold such briefings, an hour before the regular council meeting, in 2001 and 2002, but has not done so since then.
Hill spoke about reducing the time burden on the City Manager, and also mentioned that the move will hopefully shorten city council meetings and help inform new council members.
That’s a point Council Member Christine Sederquist took issue with, noting that pushing the council meeting back an hour to make room for the briefings, but only allowing an hour for them, probably wouldn’t make any difference.
In dissenting, Sedeqerquist also voiced concerns that the move could impair the public’s access to the details of the council’s discussions on public issues.
Duncanville and Georgetown hold staff briefings on the same day as regular council meetings. Duncanville’s are scheduled for an hour, with the regular council session beginning immediately after. Georgetown’s are two hours before regular council meetings. Round Rock and Austin hold briefings two full days before regular council meetings and allow for several hours each.
Given what other cities are doing in terms of staff briefings, it’s hard to say whether the new format will reduce the time burden on city staff and council members. However, if it does, that would certainly be a benefit.
Still, there doesn’t seem to be a rational argument for keeping these meetings out of the public eye.
We realize that the city has said minutes of these meetings will be kept. However, that’s simply not good enough. Video equipment is available, and should be utilized to keep the public informed on what its elected officials have to say about the issues — not just how they vote.