We've partnered with the team at A Functional Democracy to share some helpful tips for testifying and to help distribute their "A Beginner's Guide To Local Government" book.
Written by Amy Stansbury, Hal Wuertz, & Jordan Shade
The past several weeks have seen record levels of turnout at Austin City Council meetings.
As Mayor Pro Tem Delia Garza shared earlier this week, “I think it’s great so many new people are listening, and engaged, and part of this conversation… I have never received the amount of emails in my inbox. We’re receiving 4 to 5 a minute from Austintes. This is a different moment. There is a bigger call for change, institutional change, to move from the status quo.”
But getting involved in something new is never easy, especially when it involves public speaking, which is why we’ve partnered with our friends at A Functional Democracy to put together this little guide on how to testify.
ONE MORE THING BEFORE WE REALLY GET INTO IT…
Have you gotten yourself a copy of “A Beginner’s Guide To Local Government”yet? It’s fun, it explains all the basics of Austin’s local government system, and it comes with stickers. What more could you want?!
We’ve partnered up with A Functional Democracy (a local, nonpartisan civic education organization, co-founded by our Editor-In-Chief Amy Stansbury) to distribute 3,500 copies of their zine/book before the November elections.
Here’s how you can get a book:
Order one online here. Books are $12 and the proceeds help support the civic education work of A Functional Democracy and The Austin Common, as well as our “A Beginner’s Guide To Local Government” book donation program.
Request a book donation. If you’re part of a grassroots/nonprofit organization who would like 25 or more books donated to your group, simply fill out this form. And let us know if you’d like a Civics 101 presentation (which can be done virtually) to go along with it!
Buy our books in bulk. If you’re part of a company or large nonprofit organization with the budget to support us, we ask that you fill out this form and request a bulk book purchase. And of course, if you’d like a Civics 101 presentation to go along with it, just let us know!
Okay, now back to our regularly scheduled programming. How to testify…
FIRST, WHAT IS TESTIMONY? AND WHAT HAPPENS IN CITY HALL ANYWAY?
Check out this handy little video (made by our friends at A Functional Democracy) to find out.
AND WHAT DO PEOPLE USUALLY TESTIFY ABOUT?
Right now, the focus of City Hall testimony is around racial justice and policing. But over the years, lots of different issues have brought Austinties to City Hall to share their opinions. Watch this video (almost made by A Functional Democracy) for a bit of context on the many ways that Austinties have engaged with City Council in the past.
TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS
The AFD team asked dozens of City Hall regulars for their tips/advice on how to deliver compelling testimony. Here’s what they had to say.
Truly a City Hall newbie? Not even sure what kind of issues you want to testify about? Try out these AFD worksheets! You can download them here.
Since City Council meetings are running a little different these days, we’ve grouped the logistical info below into two categories – During COVID-19 and not during COVID-19. But, a few things that remain the same no matter when the meetings happen are:
Testifiers are usually given three minutes to speak, but if lots of people have signed up, then only the first 20 or so get three minutes and everyone else just gets one minute. The mayor is usually pretty strict about these time limits, so try and prepare testimony that won’t go too long.
City Council agendas can be found online here. This is where you’ll find everything that Council will be discussing, along with the item numbers.
Council is still holding all of their meetings remotely, which means that instead of showing up to City Hall to testify, you have to call in.
Here’s how that process works:
Fill out the speaker form on this website by noon the Wednesday before the Council meeting
Once you submit the form, you’ll receive either an email or a phone call with the telephone number you should call on Thursday
Call that number 45 minutes before the meeting begins
Stay on the line until your name is called
Deliver your testimony!
A quick note – It pretty much goes without saying that this is not a perfect system. At recent Council meetings, people have had to stay on the phone line for hours waiting for their name to be called. This system is still pretty new for Council (they’ve never had this call-in structure before), so hopefully the process will continue to improve. (You can also always email your Council member and ask them to improve it.)
If you’re not able to dedicate the time to calling into a Council meeting, you can also just email your Council member. All of their contact info can be found here.
During non-pandemic times
During normal times, there are two opportunities for the public to speak at City Council meetings. The process for signing up to speak works like this…
Citizen Communication –
This happens at noon on Council meeting days.
Ten Austinites are allowed to sign up to speak for three minutes each on the topic of their choice. You do not have to talk about an issue that Council is actually discussing at that meeting. This is your chance to bring new issues to Council’s attention.
Signups for Citizen Communication open up 21 days before the Council meeting. You can sign up here.
On a specific agenda item –
This is the most common way to speak at Council meetings. The public is invited to testify on specific agenda items that Council will be discussing at that day’s meeting.
To sign up, simply show up to City Hall (signups open at noon the Monday before a meeting) and find one of the big computer kiosks in the City Hall atrium. Select the agenda item you would like to speak on and fill out the accompanying form. Even though signups open early, you’re still able to sign up to speak on the day of the actual Council meeting, although this will probably mean you’ll be further down the speakers list and might have to wait a little while for your name to be called.
On the day of the meeting, all you have to do is show up and wait for your name to be called. You can keep track of when your item will be discussed by watching the livestream via ATXN. Oftentimes, if an issue is controversial, Council will wait to discuss it until after their dinner break, in the evening, so that the public can more easily attend. You’ll be called based on the order in which you signed up.
A few more logistical tips…
Costumes and special t-shirts are encouraged – During non-pandemic times, it’s very common for everyone supporting/opposing a particular issue to all wear the same colored shirt (or some other identifier). If you don’t have time to wait for your name to be called or are uncomfortable public speaking, simply showing up at the meeting with the right t-shirt on can send a signal to Council.
You can donate your time – Public speaking not your thing? Have a friend who’s amazing at it? You can donate your time to them! (One thing to remember – you must be present in the building in order to donate your time. You can’t just sign up to donate and then leave.)
Parking is validated – Once we’re allowed to gather at City Hall again, don’t forget that parking at City Hall is free! Just use the garage entrance on Guadalupe Street and bring your ticket inside. There will be a table right when you walk in with a validation machine.
Stay up-to-date on what Austin City Council is discussing by following The Austin Common on Instagram – The Wednesday before every Council meeting, we post an “Austin City Council Meeting, Explained” series, with all the key info you need to know.