A debate over efficiency came to the forefront during a June 6 meeting of the Leander City Council, though there was limited discussion of government transparency as the council voted to shift its regular meetings from 6 p.m to 7 p.m. and hold a ‘staff briefing’ at 6 p.m.
Staff briefings will be held in the smaller San Gabriel Conference Room and will not be live streamed or recorded for the public.
Mayor Troy Hill proposed the change and told council members that the purpose of the move was to improve efficiency and reduce the amount of time taken up by the City Manager and city staff discussing issues with council members.
“The idea was to look at best practices from other cities, and what we talked about was a ‘packet meeting,’” Hill said, explaining that members of the council would meet, with a quorum present, to discuss items on the upcoming council agenda, with the City Manager or individual department heads.
As discussed by the council, these ‘packet meetings’ would be equivalent to ‘staff briefing sessions’ as identified in the Texas Open Meetings Act, and would be open to the public.
The proposal passed 5-1, with Council Member Christine Sederquist voting against the change. Council Member Michelle Stephenson was absent.
Hill said the change would streamline council meetings and free up a significant amount of time for the busy City Manager position by having all council members get the same information at the same time.
Currently, council members either email or meet individually with the City Manager to ask questions about city processes, procedures, obtain technical information, or gather other information about items on an upcoming council agenda.
However, Hill and Council Member Cannon explained that there had been difficulty in the past, with meetings being inefficient and city staff giving different answers to different council members.
Hill also said the City Manager spends an “astronomical” amount of time — up to 20 hours per month — meeting with individual council members.
Sederquist, who debated the issue on points of time savings and transparency with the public, said that currently council members can email the City Manager with questions, and responses are then distributed to all council members.
“The main thing, to me, is freeing up the City Manager to do their job,” Hill said. “And not requiring them to have to spend so much time every month... taking away from their official duties to meet with each one of us to go through the agenda.”
But Lago Vista City Manager Josh Ray, who has been in city government for 17 years, said he believes a primary part of the reason his job exists is for the purpose of informing city council.
Ray holds scheduled meetings with any council member who wishes to meet during the week, and said he makes himself available to council members and to the public each Tuesday morning at a breakfast table at the city’s golf course.
“I’ll sit down with the (council members) some will schedule a time to sit down and talk, some will pop in without scheduling time,” said Ray. “If you look at a 40 to 50 hour work week, and you’re only meeting every two weeks, you should be able to find time to meet with a council member outside of the council chambers. You want them to do their research prior to the meeting.”
Ray said he hadn’t heard of a city doing a separate staff briefing with a quorum, but also said he didn’t see a problem with it as long as council members have the time to understand the issues and come back with additional questions before having to vote on an item.
“It’s our job (as city managers) to be as informed as we possibly can, to have the expert knowledge we need to have on as many topics that our councils have questions about,” said Ray. “That’s our role, to make sure they get that information.”
City Secretary Dara Crabtree, in answering a question from Hill, said the practice of holding staff briefing meetings immediately prior to the council meeting is common.
Duncanville, which Hill and Crabtree cited as an example of where these staff briefing meetings were working for the council, does hold them an hour before the regular council session.
Round Rock and Austin hold workshops on the upcoming agenda two days prior to its council meetings. Georgetown holds similar briefings two hours before its regular council meetings.
All four of those cities provide audio and video of their staff briefings or workshops to the public.
Cedar Park doesn’t hold staff briefing sessions and hasn’t done so since 2002, according to city spokesperson Jennie Huerta.
As approved by Leander’s council, the city will keep minutes from the briefings, though minutes are not likely to include an exact transcript of the questions, answers, or discussions between council members and staff.
Sederquist said she sees a benefit for the City Manager with the change and supports the idea behind the briefing meeting. However, she said having the briefing occurring only one hour before the council meeting means the staff couldn’t realistically have enough time to gather any more information than what they had already prepared for the meeting. She also said she feels the change could diminish the public’s ability to hold council members accountable for their votes.
Hill was insistent that the move is not an attempt to remove the public from its deliberations.
“This would be a public meeting,” Hill said. This is not an attempt to go around the public access.”
City spokesperson Mike Neu said the agenda for staff briefings will be posted right above the agenda for the subsequent city council meeting, and the agenda will state the topics covered could be any agenda items listed in the council meeting agenda.
Neu also confirmed that the city does not currently plan to capture audio or video of the briefing sessions, but said the city will keep minutes of the meetings — though it has not yet been determined how detailed the minutes will be when published.
Neu also 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.
Council members Kathryn Pantalion-Parker and Chris Czernek both said they would be interested in trying the briefing meetings as new council members, stating they feel they could make better decisions in council meetings from the information they could gain in the briefing meetings. They also said they see a value in hearing other council members’ questions to staff, which might be informative about the agenda item.
Agreeing that an informational meeting had value, Sederquist reiterated her concerns that one hour wouldn’t substantially change how council members prepare for council meetings. She said she wants to have enough time so that when local residents email complaints, she can reach out to staff for information and bring back possible solutions.
Hill told Sederquist that if she doesn’t consider the new approach useful, she doesn’t have to come to the briefing sessions.
The council is expected to hold its first briefing meeting before the July 9 regular council meeting.