Much, Much More About That Controversial Agenda Item the Dallas City Council Now Won't Even Talk About Tomorrow

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CityHallOrbs.jpg
Some call 'em "orbs"; others, "balls."
Late this afternoon, Chris Heinbaugh, Mayor Tom Leppert's chief of staff, called to discuss those proposed changes to council meetings, which would put stricter limits on public speakers at City Hall and put a deadline on when council members can remove consent agenda items for individual consideration. Heinbaugh insisted that the mayor had no part in writing the proposed amendments to the City Council Rules of Procedure: He said City Secretary Deborah Watkins had asked for two changes -- the ones involving the consent agenda items and speakers' sign-ups -- and said that he believed Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway had asked for the other changes.

Caraway told Unfair Park moments ago that, no, he had nothing to do with any of the proposed changes, many of which he's fine with. But Watkins did say, yes, it was her idea to have speakers sign up by no later than 5 p.m. the day before council meetings, as opposed to 9 a.m. the morning of. And, yes, she wants to limit when council members can pull consent items for individual consideration. The reason: Practicality.

"It's for purely operational purposes," she says. "There are 15 council members, and I want to get to all the council members the items they want considered individually, so I can notify them and staff so they can be available to respond to their concerns regarding the item. We'll be here late tonight to make sure we've pulled every single item and contacted staff to make sure they can respond. And the later we get them, the harder it is to prepare. It's procedural. It's logistics."

Much, much more after the jump. But first, this late-breaking news from Chris Heinbaugh via e-mail: "Councilmember [Vonciel Jones] Hill deferred Addendum Item 2 so the rules do not allow it to be discussed by the Council tomorrow."

As for the proposed amendment that says speakers must sign up by 5 p.m. the evening before a meeting, she says that too is simply a matter of procedure. Because, for one thing, the original city rules don't allow for e-mail; the amendment under consideration tomorrow does.

"I need time to get all the speakers together," she says. "It's the same thing: logistics and operations. Now they can sign up 9 a.m., and I'm running around like a chicken with my head cut off to get staff prepared to speak about issues raised by the speakers."

Angela Hunt tells Unfair Park she's less than thrilled with most of the proposals that were going before the council tomorrow -- because many of them sound very much like restrictions Leppert was trying to place on public speakers last summer, before Leppert pulled them at the very last minute. For instance, she's appalled at the proposal to "eliminate the open microphone period at the beginning of council meetings."

"I don't quite understand why we would not have morning speakers, because it's very convenient for people who work: They can get on the list, and they're at work by 10," she says. "But if you only allow afternoon speakers, sometimes we wrap at 2, at 4, at 6, 7. Does that mean they have to take off half day a work just to speak to the council? We need to be focused on how to make government more transparent, not less, and more responsive to the citizens."

And she's also less than thrilled with the issue involving the pulling of consent agenda items -- which is to say, items that are voted on all at once without discussion by the council. Because right now, any council member during a Wednesday meeting can have a consent item pulled for a separate discussion. Watkins says that's tough on staff. Hunt says, Tough. Because, far as she's concerned, the 5 p.m. deadline isn't realistic: Council members don't get their packets of addendum items, many of which are consent items, till late Friday. And they can't voice concerns to city staff till Monday, during which council members are often tied up in committee meetings.

"Pulling items by Monday, that's a worthy goal, and I think we ought to have a gentleman's agreement to try to do our best to do that," Hunt says. "But putting it in stone ignores the reality ... it's impractical, and I think that's solving a problem we don't really have. And it doesn't look good. I've had constituents come down Wednesday and say, 'I've got a concern about this item on consent agenda,' and sometimes I hadn't thought of it. Now, I can walk over to the city secretary and say, 'I want this pulled.' But if I have to go through the mayor or a majority of colleagues, well, what if it's a controversial item? It strikes me as a very ... It strikes me as a way to quash debate, and that's not what we should be doing.

"It comes down to: Who do we work for again? It's the taxpayers and voters of Dallas, and they have the right to speak -- even if they say crazy things. We're elected, and we have a responsibility to make sure all of the items -- ironically, items like this one, which was stuck on the consent agena and couldn't be pulled without his approval or the majority of the council -- are discussed."

To which Watkins responds: "That's a valid concern. But I've got a job to do. That's it. That's strictly it. And remember: Mine is not political."

As for Caraway, he's positive the council used to put a deadline on when items could be pulled from the consent agenda -- far as he can recall, that rule dates back to at least Steve Bartlett's tenure as mayor.

"It's not something new," he says. "I don't want to make a big thing of it. If the council member has his ducks in a row and makes his case, that will be honored by the other council members."
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