by Kevin Fullerton
City administrators typ- ically suck in their breath when they get a call from a newspaper reporter which begins: "Congratulations! As part of our effort to describe the role city staff play in transforming City Council policy into action, we've chosen to focus on your office." Assistant city managers, perhaps, have even more cause for anxiety than other officials. On average, ACMs hold their jobs for only about three years, and they don't improve their survival odds by drawing attention to themselves. They just follow the orders of the city manager, ACMs will insist -- that's their job. The further they stay from the political flames the better.
illustration by Doug Potter
But ACMs can't escape the heat entirely, because what the city manager says to do and what City Council members want done don't always line up perfectly. ACMs have to prioritize some projects over others, and that makes them political players, whether they like it or not: The less people know about that, however, the cooler their offices remain. Neither are the three Austin ACMs eager to be publicly compared, favorably or otherwise. The assistant city managers' offices are directly across from each other in the Municipal Building, and they share a common entryway and lobby. Meetings are frequent. Cordial relations are carefully maintained. During research for this article, word got around City Hall that one particular ACM had been targeted for a negative portrayal, so that ACM's interview was abruptly changed to a new location, without prior notice, so that a city information officer could listen in. It's a tight circle of wagons.
Austin's assistant city managers aren't incompetent or corrupt, so the question arises as to why a newspaper would go mucking around in their esoteric realm, where what little useful knowledge one gains is from people who can't afford to go on record. Well, for one thing, the traditionally rocky relationship between city staff and City Council members has improved since the infamous 1997 retreat at which council members pointedly told City Manager Jesus Garza and his department heads that council expected less recalcitrance from them in the future.
Some say that council/staff cooperation -- in purchasing watershed buffers, directing industry off the aquifer, and creating a new blueprint for managing growth -- has been "beauty in motion." So on that level, this article is an opportunity to highlight how the feverish commitment of upper-level staff has made your local government hum. On the other hand, the City Council's new social equity initiatives, discussed at length previously in these pages, are about to swivel the spotlight onto departments that haven't been so dynamic. Can we expect the same cooperation we saw from the planning, permitting, and watershed protection offices from Health and Human Services, for example?
ACMs may not directly control your water pressure or hire the doctor that attends you at a public health clinic, but if, say, you're repeatedly failing to be credited when you pay your bill, an ACM might have a lot to say about whether the water department revamps its record-keeping system. They're the eyes and ears of the city manager, and an ACM's attitude about you as a citizen can greatly affect how sympathetic the city is to your needs and problems. City Council members rely on information from ACMs when deciding whether certain causes are realistic to pursue, and city department heads can't grow their budgets unless an ACM is willing to go to bat for their proposals. A huge portion of the city budget on which council will vote in September will have been contrived by the city manager's team, often with the use of such fiscal legerdemain as "interdepartmental transfers" -- spending adjustments often too small and complex for council members to thoroughly review.
But as neighborhood leaders have learned, it isn't necessarily easy to get to know your ACM. ACMs will sometimes overwhelm you with details about a project, other times lull you into stupefaction with mystifying vagueness, but seldom will he or she use the pronoun "I" in front of a verb. Their team works more smoothly without stars, and without the public knowing whose storage closet -- or conference table -- particular projects now occupy. Innovation, or a particular interest in one politician's agenda, can often be a liability, while loyalty and mutual protection form a safer road. Council members admit that they sometimes feel outside the loop -- unsure who's responsible when their policy items get short shrift.
"It's hard for us as a council to know how much filtering [of information] is going on," says Council Member Daryl Slusher, "so if there is a need that should get met and it's not, you may have to demand to know why."
So if you want to find out from Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell, for instance, how she, individually, has energized her departments to leverage the council's remarkable feats of strength mentioned above, you hear: "I'm not sure I can answer your question, whether any one person or any one set of relationships have made it work or not work. ... [Assistant city managers] are key players, but it's kind of like pulling the pieces together." Or if you ask ACM Marcia Conner how she copes with the inevitable conflicts between a city manager's long-term goals and politicians' meddling personal preferences, you get no more than, "It's a real balancing act in terms of being able to get that done." No pigeonholing, no sock drawers, no misplaced messages. "Council makes policy. We work as a team with the city manager to implement that policy as best we can." Okay, but there has to be more: different priorities, different survival strategies, different beliefs about the role of government and what influence council members and citizens should have. There are. This is what we could learn.
First, a review of who's done what since this council -- which gelled two years ago with the election of Mayor Kirk Watson and freshmen Council Members Bill Spelman and Willie Lewis -- became a 7-0 policy machine. That alignment created the cleanest, most energizing winds staff could have hoped for: Marching orders were writ large, and staff had fewer worries about getting tackled from behind by the dissenting losers in 4-3 council votes. The council's eyes were less on political intrigue and more on zoning issues, environmental protection, and roads.
photograph by John Anderson
Lo and behold, through some coincidental turn, City Manager Jesus Garza placed the departments most influential in planning and growth -- development review and inspection, water, public works, environmental and conservation services -- under his former chief of staff, and brand-new ACM, Toby Futrell. City Hall insiders say Garza had seen the writing on the wall: A longtime resident with hippie-Austin values, wonkish enthusiasm for proactive government, and the personable energy of a stage actor, Futrell was a natural to play the good lieutenant for this council. Garza demurs, saying he was only looking for someone with a "fresh look" to head those departments.
Whatever the reason for Futrell's assignment, she has been, inescapably, the most visible of the ACMs in the past two years. She spearheaded the city's anti-disinformation campaign at countless annexation hearings, negotiated the land purchases for the city's 15,000-acre watershed buffer zone, and has become the guru of the Smart Growth development process, an initiative which has racked up early victories in diverting new office complexes by Computer Sciences Corp., Motorola, and Dell off the aquifer watershed.
Another Futrell accomplishment -- so far lesser-known, but which is bound to raise eyebrows soon -- is overseeing a revamp of the city permitting process which has halved the average time it takes to approve site plans. Council members, to a head, trust her. Slusher, one of the harshest critics of city staff's performance at the 1997 retreat, says that Futrell's guardianship of council priorities has been refreshing. "It has been somewhat of a struggle to get the message down across the ranks, but ... once Toby was put over the growth programs, then we've seen a lot of change. ... We're confident that anything that has to comply with SOS is going to comply because she's not going to let it slide through on a technicality ... and she'll come around and tell you what's going on -- you don't find out in a crisis, an hour before you have to vote on something," Slusher says.
photograph by John Anderson
Marcia Conner, on the other hand, whose departments include Health and Human Services, the police, and Solid Waste Services, has kept a lower profile, and, to many, is more mysterious. Everyone knows she's smart and resourceful, that she has genuine concern for folks who need public services such as health care, and that she doesn't brook sloppy work. But her relationship with council members has been more removed than Futrell's. On the one hand, Conner has delivered on some notable items: Sheurged the hiring of police chief Stan Knee, whose commitment to community-based policing has delighted Council Member Bill Spelman, for one, a strong advocate of neighborhood policing solutions. She helped broker the accord that has eased the bitterness between the police and Cedar Avenue neighbors over the 1995 Valentine's Day melee. And Conner brought the Millennial Youth Entertainment Complex in East Austin to the end of its long, tortured road to completion.
But Conner's role in the controversial relocation of the city's day-labor center has only served to reaffirm many neighborhood leaders' belief that she's not particularly interested in the community's opinion when steering projects. Meanwhile, morale at the Health and Human Services Dept. remains sickly, and an outside audit of Solid Waste Services gave the department a lukewarm review. Still, council members are aware that those departments' problems extend way beyond one administrator's control. When Council Member Gus Garcia heard that Conner was a contender for the city manager's job in Richmond, Virginia, earlier this year, he reportedly took Conner by the arm in council chambers and said, "I don't want to hear anything about you leaving us."
Jim Smith, whose low-key reticence casts virtually no shadow these days, has been the deal-making architect behind projects that will soon throw out plenty of shade downtown: the Austin Convention Center expansion and Convention Center Hotel, the Waller Creek tunnel construction, the Town Lake Park redesign, and AMLI's highrise apartments in downtown's west end. Council's unanimous nods of approval for these deals is a testament to Smith's firm grip on the city's business interests. One City Hall employee describes him as "a fact-driven realist" who "comes along and pours cold water on big dreams. He knows how to avoid the land mines." Of all the ACMs, Smith is the one who most seems to have no internal motivation beyond following orders. However, his long and cozy relationship with developers was a likely reason Garza removed him from the development-regulating departments Futrell now heads when the Green Council moved in. Eminently programmable, though, Smith was the city's intermediary as a number of competing and conflicting groups, including civic activists, neighborhood leaders, and parks advocates, came together to synthesize a plan for Town Lake Park -- and ultimately favored public interests over commercial ones.
The ACM Way
Critics of city government who carp that staff prioritize their own ambitions over the interests of citizens may not be totally off the mark, even if the conspiracies they may imagine are largely fictional. Like corporate employees, assistant city managers have to play give-and-take to survive, and if that means some people get snubbed, if policies get rammed through without thorough community discussion, it may be due more to insecurity than arrogance or power mongering.
One complaint you don't often hear about Austin's ACMs is that they do bad things. A more common complaint is that they do some things badly -- as in, they don't respect the public process. "Half the problem is not what's done, it's how they go about it," says Citizens Planning Committee member Cecil Pennington. "Unless they want something, you don't hear from the city manager's staff," Dawson neighborhood leader Cynthia Medlin says. "They don't want to associate with the hoi polloi; they want to decide what's best for the populace, but they don't want to walk among us."
City Manager Jesus Garza
photograph by John Anderson
Council members will tell you, however, that staff's respect for citizens has in fact shown improvement. The harsh reality remains, though, that the city manager's team has to sort through a cacophony of contradictory ideas when drawing up and executing plans, and the work becomes more difficult, and riskier, if ACMs try to please everyone. "City government is corporate in its nature," one council aide muses. "Good Lord, imagine trying to train a Fortune 500 company to do a fine-tuned democratic process -- but that's what we're asking [the city manager's staff] to do." It's easy to forget that one Austin ACM who didn't last, Oscar Rodriguez, was an administrator extremely sympathetic to neighborhoods -- neighborhoods that happened to oppose then-Council Member Eric Mitchell's East Austin redevelopment program. Rodriguez got swept away in the political wind shear.
Austin ACMs have each chosen their own individual strategies to avoid the pitfalls of City Hall, and the consequences of those choices tend to determine who likes them, and who doesn't. Futrell, for example, thrives on engaging her friends and enemies alike. Challenge her with a question about a program she's overseeing, and you can hardly look down to write the answer because she'll lean in to maintain eye contact. At City Hall, she's touching elbows, ferrying reports, pausing to debate disgruntled citizens. Council aides say she sounds out the public waters through inclusive discussions before moving projects forward, heading off potential conflicts. Neighborhood leaders say Futrell's just what an ACM should be -- out in the open and receptive. "Toby thinks like I do," longtime neighborhood advocate and Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman says simply.
Futrell says she's no more helpful than any other ACM -- expressive dialogue is just her way. "Some people might think my style is insane," she says. "I would think anyone, by the time they're at an ACM level, knows that the only danger is withholding information." Well, hardly the only danger. Futrell's headlong enthusiasm for Big Ideas such as Smart Growth risks exposing her flank, especially if neighborhoods eventually decide the S.G. package she's proferring is nothing but a bag of Smart Pills. Council aides say Futrell has engendered a buffer of goodwill at City Hall that will earn her forgiveness if she winds up holding the broken pieces of failed projects. Well, that may be true of this City Council, but politicians come and go, as city officials well know.
Marcia Conner, in contrast, is more careful about showing her cards, sometimes to the point of frustration for some council members. Willie Lewis is one of those, who says, "Marcia tells [council members] exactly what she wants them to know and nothing else, because most of the time, you don't know enough to ask the questions to get the information you really need." As a freshman council member, Lewis' frustration could be the result of unreasonable expectations, but he's not alone in his misgivings. Council aides point out that Conner maintains a tight grip on the information available from Health and Human Services, who frequently refer phone calls to her office.
What's also true, however, is that when the dust settles, Conner's nuts-and-bolts preoccupations generally produce results that stand up to scrutiny. Don't bother asking her how she does it. "There are some things that are inherent in terms of how you operate," Conner offers. "You have a sense, and some of it is just training, in how you communicate with your departments, how you organize to get things done."
If higher authorities appreciate Conner's results, however, staff working under her can find the going tough. Police Chief Knee extols Conner as one of the best bosses he's ever worked under in a video about Conner made to promote the National Forum for Black Public Administrators conference which Conner recently hosted in Austin. A former Health and Human Services employee who has witnessed Conner lambasting her department heads at meetings, though, has seen a different side. The staff member describes Conner as a yeller and blame-thrower who keeps distant from her managers. "I can tell you, there's not a warm and fuzzy bone in her body," the employee says. Is it just a management persona? Conner's upbringing in a Southern, can-do, middle-class family obviously gives her drive. And she says she maintains quarterly retreats with her department heads to keep them more comfortable with her and with each other.
Questions of management style almost seem irrelevant in the case of ACM Jim Smith. When City Hall insiders say Smith is a model bureaucrat who displays little personality, they really mean it. "He plays his cards pretty close to his chest," says Downtown Austin Alliance director Charles Betts, who frequently sits across the redevelopment table from Smith. "He has a very good poker face," adds MariBen Ramsey, a Junior League representative in the Town Lake park planning process. And he reputedly will carry the sword for whoever rules the chain of command. "He doesn't miss a trick," says a crusty political gadfly. "If Jim Bob Moffett were mayor and said to him, 'Go ye forth and pave the Hill Country,' he would go forth and pave the Hill Country." An arms-length administrator who competes in Iron Man triathlon contests, Smith doesn't exactly give off warm fuzzies, and has never been one to chat up council members. "He doesn't really do the communication piece with the council the way the others do," observes Beverly Griffith's aide, John Gilvar.
The roles the three Austin ACMs will play as the council rolls out its new priorities is uncertain, owing to Garza's preference for rotating ACM assignments. Garza's not saying where anybody might end up, though he acknowledges that new council directions will be factored in to any new assignments. Garza's a bit mysterious on this point, saying he needs to determine if he has "the right personnel to operate as a team effectively," but also that he's happy with his ACMs and no one will be dismissed. Conner did interview for the city manager's job in Richmond, Virginia, earlier this year, but Garza says he never felt that her departure was imminent. Conner says that the job, located nearer her family and old stomping grounds in Arlington, Virginia, failed to interest her when she sensed that the Richmond City Council prefers to micromanage its city manager.
As for Smith, the rumor is that he would actually prefer a return to his days as a department head and escape the ACM pressure cooker. For now, though, he's happy that the largely 7-0 council is moving in one direction.
The Equity Docket
The City Council's new emphasis on social equity raises questions as to who might end up heading the moribund Health and Human Services Dept., whose attitude toward Goodman's proposed child care program, for instance, has so far tested the council member's patience. Goodman wants about $1 million from HHS to provide a day-care center for city employees and training for child care workers, most of which is a one-time, capital expense. HHS's response, Goodman recounts, is "Council members may have wishes they would like to see us bring into reality, but we're here to talk about reality." Pie in the sky, in other words. Goodman says she expected HHS to protect their budget, but she didn't expect so little sympathy from the department, nor to get no response from Conner. City staff usually try and make things happen if you ask, Goodman says, but "this [attitude] was new and different."
Actually, a jagged riff between HHS and the council has existed for some time: Council has sunk millions into consultants trying to save the ailing public health clinics, but for some reason can't seem to get their hands on the problem. The company now managing the clinics, Goggio, has added substantial efficiencies, but the clinics took another budget cut this year from Garza's office. Council members say that neither Garza nor Conner has handled the clinics as sensitively as they had hoped. Skeptics say the two administrators would both love to hand primary care over to a private provider and be done with the clinics. Conner is noncommittal. She says she firmly believes government should be a health-care provider of last resort for indigents, but that the decision about who governs them is a community decision. "My role as an ACM would be to basically make sure that we lay out the options, from the service delivery as well as the financial perspective," says Conner.
But measuring and improving the performance of social services delivery is much more difficult than, say, determining the quality of street maintenance. Public Works director Peter Rieck can cruise around on his motorcycle to see if traffic light switches are properly synchronized, but evaluating whether the indigent population is being well-served is a more complex task. It's clear that to make dynamic changes in a department such as HHS, Conner would have to wade out much further than Futrell has with zoning, planning, and conservation, where council has been very specific about its priorities and supportive of progress. Will Conner earn the council's trust when, assuming she keeps control of HHS, it comes her turn to put the hammer down? HHS had troubles long before Conner took over, and Garza says some "fine tuning" of its administrative structure may be necessary soon, but if council continues to feel it can't get anywhere with the department, some kind of management change could result.
Like it or not, this council expects more than just traditional administrative competence from its city manager team. It wants to make big policy changes in a very public way, and staff who don't take that message to heart are likely to feel mighty uncomfortable for the next few years. So far, ACMs have been willing to go along to get along. Futrell, for one, says that's as it should be. "We have a value-driven community on public participation, to the point at which sometimes we let process drive vs. results driving. So you live with it, incorporate it, and you move on."