Eco-Education 101

The DUD: New Heitz or New Lowz?

Mike Heitz was appointed as administrator of the city's environmental and water-quality programs because he has experience. It's just that it's not environmental experience. "Do I have expertise in those areas?" asks the former city Parks & Recreation Department director. "Point-blank, no."

Needless to say, environmentalists, including two councilmembers, are incensed with the man who put him there: City Manager Jesus Garza. When Garza created the new Drainage Utility Department on January 3, he removed those programs from the care of Environmental and Conservation Services Director (ECSD) Austan Librach. Librach, credited with taking the city to the forefront of conservation issues, had overseen the programs in one form or another for 10 years, and had expressed interest in heading the new department. Instead, Garza dubbed him the city's long-term planner, a "demotion" according to one councilmember. Four weeks later, Librach tendered his resignation papers. The turn of events has left environmentalists uncertain of the city's commitment to conservation efforts, and fearful that Heitz will let developers get away with murder.

Librach's resignation "is a painful blow to what we've been doing and what we hoped to do in the future," says Councilmember Brigid Shea, incredulous that the future now hinges on the vision of an inexperienced newcomer whose background is in management and architecture. Shea says that Heitz "is not the right person for the job. It's no malice towards Mike, but we just need someone with environmental credentials. Mike is the kind of guy who will have more of an emphasis on economic development instead of water quality."

But the city manager says that the drainage utility, with its duties previously divided between two territorial departments -- ECSD and Public Works & Transportation (PWTD), has engineers familiar with environmental codes and procedures and needed a neutral figure to unite its disparate divisions.

A city audit performed last July bears him out. It cited the drainage utility for bungled operations, and blamed the organizational structure. The water-quality and environmental regulatory programs were under ECSD. The other aspects of the utility -- flooding and erosion control -- were carried out by PWTD. Though the divisions had one funding source -- a fee assessed on utility bills -- tracking expenses and projects proved difficult. The lack of coordination and the occasional power struggle left dedicated funding 35% below requirements, and water-quality and stormwater detention ponds were often poorly maintained. This, despite an undedicated utility reserve of $17.2 million. Bungling and in-fighting between the departments are to blame.

"The utility was being pulled in two different directions," said Garza in a phone interview last week. "That's not the fault of Austan and that's not the fault of [Matt Kite, Public Works director], but we felt we needed a fresh perspective on how it's run. We chose to go with somebody neutral because Public Works and ECSD have certain biases. They haven't necessarily been at odds, but they've had difficulty in terms of their relationship. Mike [Heitz] is the one who can bring all those elements together."

Still working out of his Parks office two weeks after the appointment, but with portraits and plaques stuffed into boxes, Heitz seems eager for the change. Though he still hasn't learned such basic information as the number of employees he oversees (157), or the size of the utility's budget -- he thinks it's "approximately $20 million" (it's actually $14 million) -- the clean-cut, Richie Rich-lookalike has a crispness and infectious confidence that lends credence even to his errors. So when he proclaimed that inexperience won't hinder his performance, it was almost believable. "The problem is not expertise. The problem is management. We have the engineering staff in place. And what I don't know, I'll learn."

Renowned among the bureaucratic elite as the consummate manager, Heitz quickly became the city's fix-it man after arriving from the Kentucky school of governance in 1985. Since then he's headed up five different departments, getting a relocation slip every time another department falters. In 1989, he consolidated the Planning and Development Department from five dispersed divisions.

And in that same year, when the drive to bring the Dallas Cowboys training camp to town seemed destined for failure, then-City Manager Camille Barnett put the project in Heitz's hands. Using his diverse city experience -- he was already a three-department veteran -- Heitz brought together the right people from numerous departments to build a field according to NFL standards, on time and on budget. "I know how the processes work in all the city departments," he says with an edge-of-the-seat aggressiveness. "As far as being able to move forward within the system and bring things together, I have the expertise to do that."

As for criticism, Heitz has heard it before. Parks Department observers decried his appointment as Parks director in 1992 -- he was a business type who would ignore basic services. Heitz, sporting a stiff, monogrammed button-down and manicured hands, does seems more appropiate for the boardroom than the outdoors.

But even his most vocal critics concede that he excelled at the position. He's completed more than $8 million worth of capital projects approved by voters in 1992. Those that remain are on their original schedule. And though the Parks budget is still a shoestring operation, acreage, full-time employment, and most importantly, maintenance, steadily increased under Heitz's purview. "The record speaks for itself," he boasts.

While no one denies his managerial prowess, many question his intentions. "He knows how to work the system and push things through," says Doug Johnston, Shea's appointment to the Parks Board until last year, when she wouldn't re-enlist him for impolitic behavior. "But he's a shrewd politician and things happened the way Mike Heitz wanted them to happen, not necessarily the way park users wanted them to happen."

Perhaps the most glaring example is Heitz's curiously fervent support of the recent minor league baseball stadium proposal. (The voters disagreed and rejected $10 million in bonds last October.) It solidified Hietz's "wheeler-dealer" persona, and was interpreted by many as proof of a pro-development mentality.

Heitz says his support was warranted because, prior to the public vote, the council had approved (6-0 with Shea out of town) the $10 million in certificates of obligation. "When council says this is the policy, then it's my role to implement it," Heitz argues, and adds that he didn't advocate the baseball stadium after a public vote was set (following public pressure), but proffered only the facts to interested parties, always with a supporter and detractor present. But in what amounted to an indisputable sales pitch, Heitz presented his case to editors of The Austin Chronicle a few weeks before election day, bringing with him the team's general manager, Craig Pletenik, and one of the baseball team's biggest promoters, musician Ray Benson. Some of the Chronicle's own columnists were the only detractors present.

Heitz's thirst for the deal is exactly what worries the Save Barton Creek Association (SBCA) members, who think he may snub the recommendations of the Drainage Utility's environmental code section, a 29-member city staff team which reviews development proposals for adherence to city regulations. SBCA members say Heitz isn't always receptive to those around him. They point to an incident as recent as December, when the then-Parks Director agreed to exempt a parkland dedication requirement for a 333-acre development in Northwest Austin. (For more information on this development, see "Naked City"this issue.) Heitz eagerly approved the exemption because the developer would set aside an 86-acre private preserve in lieu of the five-acre dedication. But had he sought the advice of the Parks Board, he would have learned that the code didn't permit exemptions. Heitz discovered his own mistake later and the developer dropped the request.

"In the past, we've always been able to depend on Austan for a strict interpretation of the ordinance," says former SBCA president and current group member, George Cofer. "He enforced the code from the standpoint of what produces the best water quality. We have nothing against Mike, but we don't know where he'll be on these issues."

Heitz responds simply that he's a creature of the law and the council, and plans to carry out the will of both to a T. "The code is the code. I want the code followed. I want the code implemented. I have no intentions to diminish that."

And Parks managers who worked under Heitz say he regularly gave way to their recommendations and knowledge. According to Ray Lopez, Programs Division Manager, Heitz fostered a Total Quality Management program that solicited the input of all Park staff. "He wanted staff at the lowest level to receive as much empowerment as possible. He'd say, `You let me know what training needs there are and I'll do it.'"

Perhaps because of the criticism, or his own inexperience, Heitz is taking extra steps to solicit the advice of his critics and the employees of the new Drainage Utility Department. He's even ordered an employee contest for a new department name, to avoid the unfortunate acronym, DUD. And though he still has few concrete ideas -- his objective chart is simply the recommendations made by the auditors, and he says simply, "I'm going to restructure the utility, give it focus, put together a master plan, and implement that" -- he's already using his diverse experience to set the DUD on a course agreeable to his critics.

To the delight of the SBCA members, he initiated a meeting at the Hickory Street Bar & Grill two and a half weeks ago, where he announced some specific objectives for the utility. Among his more solid ideas, members say, is the consolidation of resources from Parks and DUD. Heitz wants to see water-quality and stormwater detention ponds made of grass, instead of concrete. Since the ponds are usually empty, he says it would permit additional urban greenspace as well as easier maintenance, since obstructive concrete walls won't surround the ponds. "I want to soften their appearance," he says. "I want the most amount of greenspace as possible and I want them landscaped."

While SBCA members like what they hear, they also know the bigger challenges are forthcoming. The utility is perhaps the city's most politically controversial department. Indeed, Councilmember Ronney Reynolds threatened an initiative to kill it after the audit was released. He's been a thorn in its side since the utility began providing funding (a total of $1.2 million) to defend the Save Our Springs lawsuit. Reynolds' threat never materialized, but he seized the opportunity created by the audit to win council approval last September to cut $2.2 million from the utility's annual income.

With the funding cut and the transfer of the recycling program two years ago from Librach to Solid Waste Services, Cofer says the recent snub of Librach is just "one more step in a trend of dismantling the environmental department."

Things may get worse in terms of finances for the utility. If a development majority sweeps onto the council this summer, getting the necessary funding in the resultant political maelstrom will take all the managerial, and political, experience Heitz can muster. Reynolds' threat would likely be revisited, and Heitz could come under heavy pressure to shelve new initiatives. While he's expected to solve the department's financial and operational quandaries, the depth of the transitory manager's devotion to the utility and environmental issues remains to be seen.

That in itself is a setback for the environmentalist camp. They were counting on the continuation and betterment of programs implemented by Librach, who will resign from the city on February 16 to join the environmental consulting firm of Espey, Huston, & Associates, Inc. Although he was often criticized by hard-line environmentalists, many say Librach put his heart and soul into conservation issues. He brought various environmental initiatives into the ECSD, like the energy conservation program and the aforementioned solid-waste recycling program. Under his leadership, the ECSD drafted numerous water-quality initiatives, and won a plethora of environmental awards. Austin, for instance, was the only North American city to garner an environmental award at a U.N. Earth conference in Rio De Janeiro.

Moreover, those close to the situation say that Librach's resignation may be just the beginning. Councilmember Jackie Goodman says the symbolism of the city manager's decision may deplete the ranks of the utility further. Indeed, a week before Librach's resignation, a top-level utility employee divined that, "Over the next six months, the sentiment of the employees will be evident in the turnover. People are concerned about what it means for the direction of the utility."

As Shea says, "It's a sad situation. Because of this bad decision, we're going to lose some good people. And as a result our environmental goals could be jeopardized."

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