Council: Hello, Columbus!

Meet the would-be city managers … and an Ohio soccer team … ?

Last Thursday’s City Council meeting began with the national anthem, “Taps,” and a color guard – in anticipation of Veterans Day, Saturday, Nov. 11. That was the most solemn moment of the 12-hour meeting, with a lengthy agenda but few surprises.

Detail of Color Guard honoring Veterans Day (Photo by Michael King)

Not much of a surprise was Council’s ceremonial surrender of its Top Secret Search for a new city manager. In an afternoon briefing on the status of the now months-long search, Stephen Newton of consultant search firm Russell Reynolds Associates informed the dais that he anticipates that a short list of finalists will be revealed to the public in the next few days (perhaps by the time you read this). That unveiling became inevitable last week, when Statesman reporters Elizabeth Findell and Phil Jankowski succeeded in unmasking five candidates arriving at ABIA to be interviewed by Council members, despite clumsy and comical efforts by Council and city staff to maintain secrecy.

For the record, the five known wannabes are: Daniel Alfonso, Miami city manager; Spencer Cronk, Minneapolis city coordinator; Howard Lazarus, Ann Arbor city administrator (and former Public Works director for the city of Austin); Maura Black Sullivan, chief operating officer of Chattanooga; and Jim Twombly, former Tulsa city manager. (It’s not yet clear whether these are all the semi-finalists; presumably we’ll find that out this week.)

Following the Statesman gumshoe revelations (and a subsequent lawsuit by the paper, for possible city violations of Open Meetings laws), it was inevitable that the final candidates would become subject to public review. Newton was vague on how many finalists there would be, saying only that the survivors are willing to be named as soon as they notify their current employers. (The initial logic of secrecy, which Council hesitantly approved in March, was to enable candidates – especially from the private sector – to remain confidential, and therefore widen the potential field.)

In short, Council purchased dearly this egg on its face, and will now spend at least a couple of weeks re-interviewing the semifinalists while explaining away the mess. The discussion was also vague on what "public input" would finally mean – that is, if the prospective two to five finalists would meet "the public" or only that part of it represented on the City Manager Search Task Force.

But it’s also worth acknowledging that pro forma public interviews of finalists are to a degree a style contest, and will not guarantee a better (rather than just a better-looking) city manager. What we’ll see is not necessarily what we’ll get … over the long haul.

Not the Columbus Crew (Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer)

In another closely watched decision, Council voted unanimously to look for a soccer field. That is, they directed staff to review underutilized city-owned properties as possible sites for a Major League Soccer team. The search has been triggered by avid interest expressed by the Columbus (Ohio) Crew S.C. – although the project nearly foundered over dais hesitation (primarily from Leslie Pool) that no particular team should be specified, to avoid potential favoritism. Her colleagues countered that omitting the Crew would simply obscure the obvious. After a tweak to symbolically include any random soccer club that might be looking for a venue, and another (at Ora Houston’s request) to expand the search area, the resolution passed unanimously.

Some Austinites remain worried that either city parkland or city money will land in private soccer-club coffers – the resolution insists otherwise, and team owners insist they will fund any stadium construction – but several locals also testified to their support for an MLS team. Judging (unscientifically) from social media – where one denunciation of Austin featured a spectacularly defecating rhinoceros – there is even more apprehension in Columbus. We’ll undoubtedly hear more in December, when staff is expected to return with their preliminary findings.

In other actions:

Let’s Keep Talking: Council directed staff to resume suspended negotiations with the EMS employees union (Labor Relations staff and interim City Manager Elaine Hart had declared an impasse), and in the meantime, to maintain current contract policies.

If I Had a Hammer: Council moved to establish a “Family Homestead Initiative,” directing staff to review permitting processes and fees for remodeling or related work (e.g., accessory dwelling units) on residential homesteads, hoping to mitigate the costs for single-family homeowners. Staff is to return with a specific proposal by February.

Crime of Having No Dough: Council established a set of standards whereby Municipal Court judges must consider indigency in assigning penalties for infractions, allowing alternative sentencing or payment plans for poor defendants.

Taking Out the Trash: Council wrestled the current anti-lobbying regulations – poked and prodded for months – to a draw. After postponing (again) the latest attempt at overall revision, they set aside (temporarily and partially) the regs governing solid waste (etc.) collection and disposal because they’ve been trying to conclude a biosolids processing contract for months, but running afoul of these regs – just like biosolids, a never-ending story …

With all this (and plenty more), they still managed to adjourn before 11pm, 10-1 Central (Non-Daylight Saving) Time. For more on City Council, follow the Daily News and this week’s print edition.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

City Council 2017, city manager, Columbus Crew

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