Just after 10 p.m. during a January 2016 Austin City Council meeting, a council member suggested the governing body was too often meeting for way too long.
That particular meeting had convened at 10:21 a.m. Jan. 28, according to city records, and members didn't adjourn until after 2 a.m. Jan. 29 (though they had a 90-minute dinner break). The length was mostly due to hours of public testimony about proposed regulation of the Uber and Lyft ridesharing services and proposed changes to how the city regulates rental properties.
Council Member Sheri Gallo made her claim after falling on the losing end of a 10-1 council vote to extend the meeting. City code requires a council vote if a Thursday meeting needs to stretch past 10 p.m.
Gallo declared: "I think the majority of our meetings have extended past 10 p.m. … Many of our meetings have gone past midnight." She added: "I really think it's a disservice to our community, a disservice to our city staff, it's a disservice to the council members, … We just need to figure out another way to handle this so that our meetings are being completed at a reasonable hour."
It wouldn’t be a shock if the council has had at least a few extra-long meetings. Before voters moved to elect 10 council members from districts with only the mayor elected citywide, the previous council (consisting of six members and the mayor, all elected citywide) ordered a study of its meetings running late. A resulting December 2014 report from the city auditor, Corrie Stokes, said that from October 2013 through September 2014, council meetings had lasted an average of 9 hours, 31 minutes – three times longer than such meetings in comparable cities like San Antonio, Phoenix and Oklahoma City. Together, she reported, eight peer cities clocked in with average council meeting lengths of 3 hours, 24 minutes.
The study also said Austin had been holding fewer council meetings than its peer cities with council members tackling more items per meeting.
A vow not to go so late
When Mayor Steve Adler was sworn in with the new council in January 2015, he vowed to end late-night meetings. "You won’t have to be at City Hall at 3 a.m. just so your elected leaders can hear your voice," Adler said in his inauguration speech on Jan. 6, 2015.
Part of Adler’s council-backed solution was to meet more frequently. A new 10-committee system, replacing six previous committees, launched in March 2015 with the goal of members vetting issues and hearing public testimony before items reached the full council.
An October 2015 Austin American-Statesman analysis revealed the new council and its committees had spent 664 hours in meetings from January through September 2015; the previous council and its committees had spent 337 hours in public meetings during the comparable portion of 2014.
We asked Gallo how she reached her conclusion about the majority of council meetings running past 10 p.m. By phone, she said her statement came from her recollection of how many times the council had voted to extend a meeting past 10 p.m.
To our inquiry about meeting lengths, Thomas Grauzer, in the city clerk’s office, said we could gauge the length of council meetings over any time period by checking beginning and end times on city-posted meeting videos.
From the videos on the city’s council meeting website, which includes transcripts of many city meetings, we determined that from Gallo’s Jan. 6, 2015, swearing-in through Jan. 28, 2016, the council met one way or another more than 100 times -- counting regular meetings, work sessions, budget meetings, discussions and special called meetings.
But we zeroed in on the council’s regular meetings, usually held on two or three Thursdays a month, mindful that historically those gatherings most often ran long. Upshot: Of the council’s 28 regular meetings from January 2015 through Jan. 28, 2016, the mayor banged a dozen --a little less than half -- to a close after 10 p.m., videos show. And of those late-nighters, five ended after midnight (only one of those occurring before July 2015).
And what drove the late-nighters? Hotly contested topics, it appears, including changes to the city’s short-term rental ordinance, regulations for transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, taxicab permitting and increasing the city’s homestead tax exemption. These divisive issues garner a lot of public testimony, where citizens sign up to speak for or against issues.
The latest-running meeting of the new Council, on Nov. 12, 2015, extended until 2:25 a.m. The Jan. 28, 2016 trailed directly behind that, ending at 2:17 a.m., after nearly 200 people signed up to speak on short-term rentals, according to the city’s transcript.
SOURCE: Website, "Austin City Council," City of Austin (accessed Feb. 3, 2016)
David King, vice president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, told us he’d been to almost every city council meeting since 2014 and had spoken as a private citizen on many issues through the years. By phone, King speculated that having 11 council members increased debate; more members mean more people piping up. "I do think, too, that because we have this new 10-1 system, more people are showing up at the meetings," King said. "And that’s a good thing."
Gallo, informed that 12 of 28 meetings in her term have extended past 10 p.m., or less than a majority, said by email that's still too many. "We made a promise to the citizens of Austin to eliminate late-night meetings," Gallo said. "I think any meeting that lasts past 10 p.m. is one too many."
Gallo said that since January 2015, the "majority of our" Austin City Council "meetings have extended past 10 p.m." and "many of our meetings have gone past midnight."
There has, of late, been a pile-up of late-running meetings. Yet the big picture is that 12, or 43 percent, of the 28 council's major meetings since January 2015 ran past 10 p.m. with five, 18 percent, stretching past midnight.
We rate this claim, which has an element of truth, Mostly False.
MOSTLY FALSE – The statement contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression.
Click here for more on the six PolitiFact ratings and how we select facts to check.