Heated arguments, shouting over each other and general incivility are no stranger to the Leander City Council dais.
In an effort to try to change that trend, the council voted Thursday to adopt Council Rules and Procedures for the first time, outlining how council meetings should be run and guidelines for council members' conduct.
Council member Chris Czernek, who sponsored the item, said he hopes these guidelines will help create unity on the council and give members ways to resolve disputes "instead of emotions getting involved.”
The council members each voiced support for the idea of the rules and aiming to be more civil. However, the final 6-to-1 vote, with Council member Christine Sederquist opposing, highlights the tricky nature of trying to articulate what reasonable limits to one person might be considered unreasonable to another person.
Czernek said the rules are guidelines that intentionally come without any penalties for violating them so it wouldn't "overreach." He said he wants the guidelines to be a living document that council members can update and adjust as they try them out.
The document is compiled from suggestions each council member sent independently to the City Secretary, and city staff suggestions.
Sederquist said she voted against the rules because they were too vague.
Council member Michelle Stephenson and Sederquist both questioned the portion directing council members to "refrain from making disparaging comments about, fellow Council members, the public, and City staff during council meetings, outside of meetings and on social media." They noted it can be subjective what is considered "disparaging" versus valid criticism.
"When people are out there or get on Facebook...I don't want to be part of telling them what they can say when they're outside" Stephenson said.
Council member Jason Shaw lamented how divisive and attack-oriented debate has become in the country, particularly on social media.
"We trying to get to get to a behavior where the city of Leander needs to be able to look up here and trust our leaders. They might not like us but they need to trust us. And if we're out there on social media or any other corners bashing each other?" Shaw said. "We're a family up here. Sometimes we're a dysfunctional family but we're a family...I'm not saying nobody has the right to go on social media and call me whatever names they want to. I'm just saying we should respect each other."
Sederquist also objected to the passage directing council members not to discuss executive session matters outside of the executive matter, noting legal rulings have consistently determined council members can speak generally about what was discussed in executive session.
Leander Mayor Troy Hill said he believes council members should keep the executive session discussions private because they deal with serious issues, such as legal negotiations. He argued that if they thought something discussed in an executive session was important, they could take a vote on discussing it publicly when they returned to regular session.
Sederquist questioned how this guideline would work if a council member felt a law was being violated during a particular executive session.
Czernek reiterated the document is a guideline, not enforced rules, and argued a council member with these concerns should remove themselves for that executive session and work with the City Manger to resolve the issue. He said they could subsequently turn to filing ethics violations if they felt it was still not being dealt with after that point.
Another passage Sederquist took issue with will have city staff list agenda items requested by specific council members as the non-specific "Council Directive," instead of the current policy of listing the author's name.
Leander City Attorney Paige Saenez said city staff had run into past issues with having the list a specific council member's name on items they brought back, even though the multiple revisions from several sources meant it was no longer their specific item. She said the changes were not meant to diminish transparency.
Sederquist disagreed, arguing "It is hidden from us, and from the public."
The council passed the rules with the proposed guidelines intact plus a few additional passages suggested by council members. Notably, a suggestion by Sederquist that directs council members to conduct all city business on their city-issued cell phones and city emails, instead of their private devices or emails. The city cell phones and emails have automatic archiving programs meant to ensure compliance with Open Record laws.