Managing Secrets

Council's search for city manager may be confidential ... or not

Former City Manager Marc Ott, at a January 2008 public meet-and-greet when he was still a candidate for the position. (Photo by Jana Birchum)
Like nature, City Hall abhors a vacuum. Among many administrative vacancies bubbling Downtown is the prominent absence of a permanent city manager to follow Marc Ott, who last August stepped down to take another job.

The wheels are turning, via consultant firm Russell Reynolds Associates – but Council seems to be wavering about its commitment to full confidentiality.

Interim CM Elaine Hart (formerly the city’s chief financial officer) is ably handling the job for now, but she accepted the position with the understanding that she was not a candidate for the permanent position. After some dithering, Council hired mega-search firm Russell Reynolds, in part for its wide range and experience in both public and private sector executive searches. But the dithering hasn’t entirely ended.

At its March 23 meeting, Council appeared to accept the Reynolds recommendation, submitted by Texas area manager Stephen Newton, to maintain confidentiality on and for the candidates being recruited, until the Council privately selects one finalist – and then presents that finalist to the public prior to confirming the appointment. But in more recent days, some council members have wavered on that decision, and during their April 4 work session, a couple of members said they hadn’t realized that accepting the recommendation was indeed the decision they had made.

“When I started seeing the reports come out that day that we were keeping the entire process confidential,” said Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo. “I thought, what? I thought we had made some choices about how we would handle the citizen task force and what their role would be with regard to interviewing, and I was comfortable with that, but I actually am in favor of having the final candidates be introduced to the public in a public setting.”

There’s precedent for Tovo’s position. When Ott was hired as city manager in 2008, eight semifinalists were announced near the end of the search, and a couple of weeks later, the two finalists – Ott, then an assistant city manager in Fort Worth, and San Antonio Deputy Assistant Manager Jelynne Burley – were presented in a public “meet-and-greet,” delivered brief talks, and then schmoozed the attendees for a while. (That selection also broke the previous precedent of only in-house hiring for city managers – indirectly marking Austin’s coming of age as a full-grown city.)

But there’s also precedent for the opposite. As Wells Dunbar reported in the Chronicle at the time, “Toby Futrell [Ott’s predecessor] was basically appointed by outgoing CM and mentor Jesus Garza; Garza arose as an executive fiat from … former Mayor Bruce Todd.” (“Beside the Point: Six Down, Two to Go,” Jan. 18, 2008) And some onetime insiders recall that Futrell effectively appointed herself (which would not have been surprising) when Garza decided to step down.

Indeed, at the time, the search that landed Ott could be praised, as Dunbar noted, as “pure sunshine and transparency.” But even with the two-finalist finish, it was not as “public” as the search that earlier produced Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo, who arguably won the job by wooing the audience at a coming-out event for a total of five finalists.

Interim City Manager Elaine Hart (Photo by John Anderson)

Figuratively and literally, there are arguments on both sides. The argument for transparency is an obvious one, since the public gets to meet at least some finalists, kick their tires, and give some feedback before Council makes its most important hiring decision. On the other hand, Newton told Council that many good potential candidates – especially those who work in the private sector – will simply not be willing to apply if they know their names will eventually be revealed to their current employers, and thereby put them at risk of losing (or clouding) their existing job and with no guarantee of the Austin position.

As of now, Council is officially maintaining the confidentiality standard, although uneasily enough that City Attorney Anne Morgan told them during the work session that they might need another resolution to clarify their intentions for their own actions and that of the citizens’ commission they’ll appoint – to either “set standards” for the kind of candidates needed or actually to meet with semifinalists (privately or not) and provide feedback to Council. (For what it’s worth, Texas Open Records laws are fairly rigorous on these issues, and for that reason City Hall may find it difficult or impossible to keep all the names confidential until the endgame.)

Confused? So is Council. Meanwhile, the Statesman editors have already harrumphed against a confidential process, accusing Council of acting “surreptitiously” – meaning Council members can look forward to the continuing PR headache of stern finger-wagging from the Bat Cave. And advocates on both sides of the question have been lobbying Council, arguing either that public "transparency” (i.e., providing "a community consensus before you make the actual appointment") in considering the finalists is absolutely vital, or conversely, that “a public dog-and-pony show … will seriously harm the quality of city manager applicants.”

That first quote is from an email to Council from Terrell Blodgett, LBJ School professor emeritus in urban management. The latter email to Council has 15 signatories, several of whom were associated with "Manage Austin Better," a short-lived (but apparently still extant) online campaign to replace Ott – for a long list of alleged failings, but in part because he was deemed insufficiently "transparent and accountable." That was then, this is now ….

So, hoping to keep the entire hive happily buzzing, the Chronicle queried all the Council members on 1) the confidentiality question, and 2) whether they have a preference for public or private sector candidates for the city manager position.

Seven council members and Mayor Steve Adler replied; here’s the (edited) gist of the responses we received.

Ora Houston (District 1)

Ora Houston (Photo by Jana Birchum)

If the search was exclusive to the public sector … I would have been supportive of providing opportunities for the community to engage with the finalist and ask questions.

When the applicant pool was expanded to … encourage applicants from the private sector, it became a very different expectation for me regarding the exposure of the applicants to public scrutiny prior to some level of winnowing. It is my understanding … at some point in the process, information will be available and there will be opportunities for the public to engage the final applicant or the finalists.

I am wanting the most qualified person for the City of Austin with no preference to them being from the public or private sector. I want a city manager who has an understanding of individuals who live in this rapidly growing city in communities that have historically been ignored and underrepresented.

Delia Garza (District 2)

Delia Garza (Photo by John Anderson)

It was my understanding that while we would be maintaining confidentiality at the beginning of the search, we would re-evaluate that process as the candidates were winnowed to the semifinalist or finalist stage. That’s still my understanding, although it seems not everyone on Council sees it the same way.

I have a fairly strong preference for a candidate with public sector experience, although I don’t intend to pre-judge the candidates ahead of the process.

Greg Casar (District 4)

Greg Casar (Photo by Jana Birchum)

My colleagues and I followed the search firm's recommendation to keep applicants' names confidential … because a search process where multiple denied applicants' names become public results in some qualified candidates not applying at all. In other words, we chose this search method because it expands our applicant pool. We'll still have a public discussion and vote on the finalist, whose name will be public.

I will be supporting a city manager whose career has centered around public service, rather than private profit. I believe that's the strong majority sentiment on the Council as well.

Ann Kitchen (District 5)

Ann Kitchen (Photo by John Anderson)

We decided that it was the Council's responsibility to select a city manager candidate and that a citizens' committee could best gather and reflect the community's concerns in recommending the skill sets we are searching for in a candidate. The Council may also present more than one finalist to the public, which can be determined at the point where we have candidates.

I am interested in the best-qualified candidate. Having worked in both the public and private sector, I understand there are often differences and unique skill sets required for each sector depending on the organization. I will be looking for a candidate with experience relevant to managing a large and very complex public entity; for the creativity to address our city's challenges; and the ability to work in partnership with the Council and the community.

Jimmy Flannigan (District 6)

Jimmy Flannigan (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The confidentiality of the candidates is about the quality of the candidates we might receive and not wanting highly qualified candidates to stay out of the process because they didn’t want their current employer to know they were looking around.

For my part, public sector experience is crucial. Some private sector experience is also valuable but I wouldn’t support hiring someone with exclusive private sector experience.

Leslie Pool (District 7)

Leslie Pool (Photo by Leslie Pool)

I was open to having a more inclusive and public vetting, including having the citizen panel interview candidates, but that wasn't a majority view; we agreed informally possibly to have them sit as one stakeholder group to interview candidates at some point, and as part of the process to select finalists.

I am strongly supportive of candidates with public sector experience. Government is very different from private business, for good reasons, and you have to be willing to let processes take time and listen to the broadest array possible for input. That's a particular mindset that takes a specific level of willing patience and respect for process.

Alison Alter (District 10)

Alison Alter (Photo by Jana Birchum)

I agree that confidentiality until we reach the finalist stage is important for securing a diverse pool of talent. When we get to the top two or three finalists, I believe the candidates themselves likely will require information and interaction beyond the Council.

It is critical that we attract the best possible talent for this role. We need someone with experience with the public sector and who is willing and able to act in a public environment. However, in my opinion that does not mean the applicants all have to have been formally employed in the public sector or specifically in municipal government. I welcome casting a wide net.

Mayor Steve Adler

Mayor Steve Adler (Photo by John Anderson)

The Council is following the advice of the search firm in keeping confidential the names of candidates in an effort to have an applicant pool able to deliver the best city manager we can find. The public will, however, help set the criteria. … The public will be very involved in setting the profile of the new manager with which the pool of applicants will be developed and the final choice made.

I am not prejudging the background required of a new city manager. There could be strengths that come from both public and private sector experience. I do think there is a particular skill set and appreciation needed to lead in a public sector role.

Got something to say on the subject? Send a letter to the editor.

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City Manager, Marc Ott, Elaine Hart, Delia Garza, Steve Adler, Jimmy Flannigan, Greg Casar, Leslie Pool, Ann Kitchen, Ora Houston, Toby Futrell, Marc Ott

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