Don Pitts Calls It Quits

City Music Manager resigns citing bureaucracy

Don Pitts has vacated his post as program manager of Austin’s Music & Entertainment Division, an office operating under his leadership since launching in 2010. He notified his supervisor this morning with a letter of resignation – effective immediately.

Don Pitts

Pitts has been on administrative leave since Jan. 13 amid an investigation not detailed to the public. As revealed in his notice, he’s had time to consider his future during a monthlong suspension and has come to the realization that it isn’t in working for the City of Austin.

“It is time for me to return to my core passion of creating vibrant music cities and ensuring that Austin is the most forward-thinking music city,” he wrote in the communication to Alex Lopez, deputy director of Austin’s Economic Development Department. “I am excited to focus on that passion and will be exploring how to best support and grow our music industry in a different way.

“As a music industry person, I realize I work differently. I understand why protocol is important in the life of a city bureaucracy and I realize it is time for me to not work within a bureaucracy any longer. I can serve as an outside resource.”

Pitts’ resignation is a stunning turn of events.

Last month, a source in the mayor’s office confirmed to “Playback” that the probe was looking into whether Pitts violated official procedure in the way he disciplined a former music office employee in 2014 after he discovered wrongdoing on her part. At the time, the high-ranking source felt optimistic Pitts would be reinstated. The Chronicle filed an open records request for a copy of the investigative report on Pitts and related emails. The request is being processed.

Pitts takes the high road in his letter, airing no animosity toward his former employer, but considering the timing, it’s presumable that he feels disrespected by the way the investigation has been handled. Instead of waiting for a judgment, he’s cued up Bob Dylan: “I ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s farm no more!”

Nevertheless, Pitts has spent the last 30 days shrouded in controversy after the city’s public information officer, David Green, told press the former was subject of an investigation by the City Auditor’s Office. That caused widespread speculation about the nature of the breach. Embezzlement?

Not if one considers the Music Office’s budget.

The “ATX Music Office,” a division of the Economic Development Department, is formally described as an “economic development accelerator and centralized resource center for Austin’s music industry, and an active community partner for Austin’s citizens, community groups, and neighborhoods.” Duties include developing Austin’s commercial music industry, executing municipally funded programs, shepherding policy addressing the concerns of the local music community, and – to Pitts’ chagrin over the past seven years – dealing with the constant conflicts between entertainment venues and neighborhoods.

“The original vision of the Division was to focus on the economic development of the music industry and community,” he explains in his letter today. “However, Austin’s growth produced an ever expanding focus around sound complaints, permitting, and various ordinances, which were quickly prioritized to be the Division’s focus.”

Indeed, Pitts has mediated many a dispute between residents and venues, a constant source of contention in Austin, but he had marked success. In the past three years, complaints about commercial music in Austin have dropped 71%. Meanwhile, the most profound achievement under his leadership was the oft-cited 2015 ATX Music Census and Needs Assessment Survey, which held up a mirror to our industry by detailing Austin music’s strengths, failures, needs, and economic realities. Pitts was the main conduit between music venue operators and the city, quietly establishing protections for clubs, such as deciding not to impose bass frequency regulations across the board in sound enforcement, but rather only employing it as a tool to resolve disputes.

Pitts’ leaving brings up a question of future leadership in the department. A temporary management position of the office seems likely while a replacement is sought. In the month that Pitts has been on leave, the Austin Center for Events considered setting an earlier curfew on outdoor music venues seeking extended hours permits during South by Southwest, a decision that could prove economically harmful for music clubs and jeopardize bookings that have been in place for months. That permitting snafu called into question the competency of city officials in understanding the mechanics of the music industry. Direction of the Music Office is pivotal at a time when local government tries to figure out its role in preserving Austin’s venue culture and economically stimulating the industry.

Pitts plans to continue working in the same vein, but in the private sector.

“You can count on me to be at your side as an advocate for Austin music,” he writes. “I will never leave our primary vision and mission. I will just be working from a different vantage point. In particular, I look forward to building on the foundation we created with the music industry census. We have a clear road map of what Austin needs to do to build our music economy. I believe that when the private sector gets more involved Austin will find even more success. I want to continue to find ways for the private sector to plug in.

Expect more on this story when “Playback” gets a copy of the auditor’s report. Here’s Pitts’ letter of resignation:

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Don Pitts, Music and Entertainment Division, Music Office, Alex Lopez, David Green, Austin Center for Events, Economic Development Department, ATX Music Census and Needs Assessment Survey, Bob Dylan, South by Southwest

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