A Leander City Council member says she’s concerned that the council’s new briefing session could stifle public debate and serve to keep contentious discussions out of public view.
“I don’t believe the meeting was intended as a way to get around the rules requiring archiving council meetings,” said Council Member Christine Sederquist. “But it feels like in effect, that’s exactly what these meetings are doing.”
Sederquist said she plans to boycott all future briefing sessions and called on the council to end them. She said she will spend that time at the council chambers building and make herself available for any questions from the public.
Leander Mayor Troy Hill argued the meeting is open to the public and everyone is welcome to attend.
“This is used by many other cities and is part of this council’s efforts to use best practices by other cities here in Leander,” Hill wrote in an email.
He said the briefing session is an efficient way to free up between 15 and 20 hours of work for some senior city staff members caused by having to meet with council members individually and, instead consolidates it into one meeting where council gets information from all staff at the same time.
On June 6, the council voted to push back the start of the council meetings and hold a briefing session one hour prior to the meeting. Due to state laws, the session must be open to the public, the council can only discuss or request information on items that are in the council meeting agenda and cannot vote on anything.
Sederquist was the only vote against the proposal. Council Member Michelle Stephenson was absent from that meeting due to travel.
The council held its briefing meeting for the first time ahead of the July 9 council meeting.
After last week’s session, Sederquist said she was concerned whether the information gathering was replacing council meeting debate.
“It’s being held in a room that’s not conducive to having the public attend, it’s not (video) archived and it just ends up being the same debate we should be having at the dais,” she said. “The whole time in the briefing, it just felt wrong.”
As a case in point, a contentious debate over one agenda item consumed about 17 minutes of the briefing session but was approved in its revised form without significant discussion in less than a minute and a half during the regular meeting.
“I guess I don’t know where this session ends and our discussion on the dais begins. But I think we’re right at that line,” Sederquist said during the briefing meeting.
Unlike a regular meeting, the city will not live stream and archive the briefings, nor does it does it capture a voice recording.
Instead, Leander Public Information Mike Neu said the city will keep summary minutes and pointed to the minutes of the council’s annual retreats as an example of what they may look like in the future.
Those minutes provided little detail regarding who asked or answered council questions, and lacked depth on some issues.
For example, the minutes for this year’s retreat includes a passage dealing with the council’s extensive discussions about the Old Town district, but did not include any details about Leander Mayor Troy Hill’s proposal for a public-private partnership to bring a two-story building to the neighborhood.
Unlike the live streams, which are posted the next day on the city’s website, the minutes will not be publicly posted until the next council meeting, when they are adopted alongside the council meeting minutes. A draft version of the minutes can be obtained earlier if a member of the public submits an Open Records Request.
The Hill Country News emailed all council members, asking them whether they felt the briefing meetings had helped them. Hill and Sederquist were the only council members to respond.