Beside the Point
Of all the indignities newly resigned Director of Communications Acuña suffered in the run-up to City Manager Marc Ott's call for his dismissal, the greatest had nothing to do with neglecting to inform his bosses of the Governor's Mansion fire or scheduling a press conference at the same time the Green Water Treatment Plant redevelopers were selected. Not by a long shot.
Instead, about a week ago, he was facing down e-mails addressed to Ott from outgoing Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley's secretary, Suzie Harriman, henpecking him to send out a citywide e-mail about Dunkerley's retirement party – in contradiction of policy prohibiting such personal messages. To clarify said policy, the supremely helpful Harriman begins by stating, "This morning I called Toby Futrell," nearly the most cringe-worthy six words Ott could imagine (just below, "Have you read Alberta Phillips today?").
Like other unsolicited e-mails, Ott deflected this one to Acuña, asking for his comment before proceeding. No wonder in his June 12 memo upbraiding Acuña for not informing city leadership on the mansion fire, Ott otherwise praised his performance, calling his ball-dropping "lack of performance an anomaly."
Of course he praised him. Wouldn't you want your own human spam filter?
But June 18, the day of the council's Green decision, Acuña made another fatal error, also preserved in e-mail. While not mentioning Acuña's decision to schedule a press conference announcing Chief Information Officer Pete Collins' indefinite suspension and police investigation (when it rains, it pours, eh?) at 3:45pm – the same time Mayor Will Wynn had earlier affirmed that council would make the Green announcement – Ott was irked at the lack of media attention for the development decision. Acuña explained most TV stations have 4pm deadlines for 5pm broadcasts; with council scheduling its decision for late afternoon, it was unlikely to be big news. "Ok. ... However, it sounds like the Mayor was advised otherwise. Anyway, there was no way that Green could have been decided any sooner," wrote Ott. "I understand," Acuña replied. "And there's no way to argue otherwise. I also know that you are in a tough spot ... and I put you there. That was never my intention." The next day, June 19, Acuña tendered his resignation, offering Ott thanks "for the honor of assisting you during your transition."
The Statesman reported over the weekend that Ott canned Acuña for dereliction with regards to the mansion fire. But it was certainly curious that Ott admitted in print that, entertaining visiting family, he was unaware of the blaze until Monday morning – what, do the Otts vacation in the Amish country? Instead, it was Wynn – not his city manager – out of town at the time and sandbagged with the news, who lost the most face. Plus, Wynn – an outgoing mayor who'll be most remembered for the development boom Downtown – certainly couldn't have been happy with the Collins fracas taking center stage on Green's big day (although reports have both Wynn and Ott flabbergasted by the scheduling).
It's fitting Toby Futrell makes a peripheral appearance in this drama, as Ott was brought aboard as the anti-Toby: a low-profile figure content to cede the stage to the mayor and council – and, from what it looks like with this firing, to take the heat for them from time to time. For even after the flames were out, there still was a fire smoldering Downtown.
So what the hell didn't happen last week? Trammell Crow got the Green nod; Dunkerley's "visitability" rules requiring future homes to be more accessible to the disabled passed, minus a more controversial, expensive provision; an interim update of Austin's moldering Comprehensive Plan for growth was approved, as were changes to the city process of determining eligibility for Planned Unit Development zoning for mega-projects like the Domain or the Concordia campus redevelopment, with an 11th-hour change from Brewster McCracken over calculating affordable housing (allowing developers to either make it a percentage of the overall development size or a set number of units). For their final meeting, Dunkerley and Jennifer Kim went out on if not a high note, then a long diminuendo. With the new council's inauguration having just occurred yesterday, June 25, the gang's on summer break, not to take to the dais until July 24. Enjoy the break, fellas – BTP certainly will!
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