Who Is Jesus?

It's Judgment Day for Austin's City Manager

photograph by John Anderson

At the council retreat just three weeks after the June runoffs, Jesus Garza was a marked man. No doubt he suspected that the new 7-0 environmental majority on the council were gunning for him. After all, as a City Manager notorious for what some have characterized as a tendency to align himself with the developer-friendly former council minority -- Mayor Bruce Todd and Councilmembers Eric Mitchell and Ronney Reynolds -- Garza made a fat target. Like a calf led to slaughter, Garza waited patiently during, and even took part in, the retreat's "team-building" activities, even as the dominant theme of the weekend began to take an ugly turn towards him. When councilmembers were asked to rank their new priorities, they almost universally put "making the bureaucracy more responsive" at the top of the list. When asked what was the most "inspiring" priority, "making the bureaucracy more responsive" again topped the list. At that point, recently elected Councilmember Bill Spelman protested that such a priority could hardly be considered "inspiring." Councilmember Daryl Slusher shot back: "Just wait till you've been here a year."

Garza appeared stunned. "Wait a minute. That priority implies that we haven't been responsive," Garza exclaimed. "What are some examples?" Councilmembers jumped in, ready to oblige with specific gripes, such as the way staff attempted to ram the Austin Redevelopment Authority's Slum and Blight Study down the council's throat during the last hours of Councilmember Eric Mitchell's reign.

On day two of the retreat, Garza knew he was in for it again when new Mayor Kirk Watson finally introduced the topic of city management head on. Watson noted that as an outside observer to the process, he had been disturbed by what he saw as an almost "adversarial relationship" between the policy-makers and those who carry out those policies.

With that, Watson laid the groundwork for what many hope will be a lasting change in how the city conducts its internal business. For years, staff had worked quietly under the smoke from bombs lobbed between the two factions of a divided council. While the councilmembers threw grenades at one another, the city staff could claim to be apolitical -- the voice of reason above the fray. But with the June runoffs, the power struggles between councilmembers were set aside, and Garza and city staff were faced with a united pack of seven suspicious bosses. Their demands were simple. No more hiding information or springing it on them at the last minute. No more deals presented with no options. No more decision-making on policy implementation behind closed doors. And, most definitely, no more confusion about their roles: Council makes policy, Watson emphasized, and staff merely implements it.

To his credit, Garza responded to the council and the retreat's mediator with dignity and his trademark self-effacing humor. He simply said: "I want to go to my room and cry." Then he wisely acknowledged that there was distrust and that he needed to make some changes.

That councilmembers held an out-of-town retreat in part to get Garza and his staff in line is a testament to the remarkable power city management staff wield. As head of the city's day-to-day operations, Garza is responsible for a wide range of duties -- from picking the police chief and producing the city's $1.3 billion draft budget to implementing the new "pay as you throw" garbage collection program. And while Garza assures everyone that his role has always been to implement policy, not to push his own agenda, the councilmembers no doubt sleep better since they airing their grievances.

Still, their surprise attack is only the most recent battle in a never-ending war that marks Austin's unique "council-manager" form of government. Arguably, city staffers are the constants that run the city while the councilmembers merely act as interlopers -- temporary stowaways on Austin's ship of state. Councilmembers know all too well that to have city staff on their side is to emerge victorious on their issues; lacking that, they will either have to bust ass to overcome the resistance (by doing their own research and providing their own convincing back-up materials for perusal by other councilmembers) or fail altogether. Because what the council can't ignore -- regardless of whether or not it agrees with Garza -- is that the competent manager is good at his job.

"Everything [Garza] does is smooth," observes Mike Levy, who, when he's not publishing Texas Monthly, often uncaps his pen to either praise city staffers or expose them as bumbling bureaucrats. "We have yet to see him fuck up."

While that may sound like faint praise, the truth is if Garza had messed up in any major way the council could have, and likely would have, placed his head on the chopping block. Perhaps Garza's greatest gift, as the council has moved further to the Left since he took the helm three years ago, is his ability to survive.

Boy Scout

Garza, 45, with his wire-rimmed glasses, reddish mustache, and penchant for staid business suits, is far from a flamboyant city hall figure. In reference to his less than colorful demeanor, councilmembers recently teased Garza for showing up at a Sunday meeting wearing a tie-dyed T-shirt. He is a quiet talker who rarely fraternizes with his staff or the councilmembers -- a real homebody who spends his off hours with his family. "Boring," says one former council aide. "Honest... professional... a boy scout," says another insider. Councilmember Gus Garcia concurs: "Jesus is so straight-laced. He's very religious.... Once I told him that the word was out that he was a Religious Right guy. He said, `Well, let's go out and drink some beer and talk about it'."

Garza was born in Brownsville, as one of five children in a close-knit family. His father was an airline mechanic whose job led to a move to Corpus Christi when Garza was in grade school. Like his many Brownsville cousins (his father had six brothers), after high school Garza pursued a degree in teaching, specializing in government and economics. He came to the University of Texas on a Ford Foundation scholarship, but before graduating, he took time off in 1972 to take his first dip into politics, working for the McGovern campaign and acting as a state delegate. Garza fondly recalls: "I was able to meet wonderful people in the Democratic party such as [steelworkers' advocate] Jose Cisneros."

Ironically, when Garza graduated in 1974 he was unable to find a job in a secondary school system in Austin. "One [school district's] personnel director told me, `You know, if you have a minor in mathematics or biology or something I could hire you, but economics? That's like religion."

After working for a short time as an adult education teacher at Becker Elementary and Austin Community College, Garza enrolled in the LBJ School of Public Affairs, where, he says, he first delved into the questions that have become a lifelong passion: "How does government get its arms around policy? How does it sort through all the interests and all the issues in order to arrive at a conclusion in terms of policy direction?"

He joined a group of LBJ classmates in a research project which resulted in a paper -- and later grew into a documentary -- on the shocking living conditions of residents in the "Colonias,"the substandard subdivisions along the South Texas border. Garza also wrote a paper on the new planning under federal law for health systems agencies, and worked as a planner for a health agency upon graduation from the LBJ School in 1977. He was hired into the city's human services department in 1978, and promoted to administrative assistant to the City Manager that same year.

Over a period of nine years, Garza handled operations for several city departments, including Public Works, Parks and Rec, Libraries, Intergovernmental Relations, and General Services. During that period, he took a four-month leave of absence in 1980 to work for Congressman Jake Pickle, on whom he still relies for support. (It was Pickle who helped convince Garza to stay as city manager when he threatened to quit last year. The former congressman recently showed his loyalty by attending Garza's press conference two weeks ago announcing his choice for Austin's new police chief). Garza "was always very likable, with a great sense of humor and a sense of the importance of the occasion," Pickle says of his former aide. "He could make a decision.... His judgment is excellent."

In 1987, Garza was made an Assistant City Manager overseeing the airport, information systems, and Public Works and Transportation. But because he was "ready to be city manager" -- and that didn't seem likely in Austin at the time -- he quit in January of 1988 to work as an assistant city manager in Corpus Christi for four years, overseeing Public Works. He then took a job back in Austin with the state as the executive director of the Texas Water Commission, but, he says, he "never hit [his] stride there." He came back to the local government side of things as an assistant city manager of Austin in 1993 because, he says, without a hint of irony, in a local governmental system "there are less politics."

Follow the Leader

photograph by John Anderson

The first object lesson Garza may have learned upon rejoining the city staff is that pleasing his bosses -- at least the most powerful ones -- may be the most important skill of all. In January of 1994, just seven months after being hired by then-City Manager Camille Barnett, Garza watched his supervisor -- respected among managers nationwide and a power base in her own right -- go head to head with then-Mayor Todd, and lose. After it was discovered that Barnett had not informed the council about a $21 million shortfall in the Brackenridge Hospital budget, Todd demanded that she concentrate on nothing else but the city-owned hospital until she straightened out the matter. Barnett -- who had frequently butted heads with Todd -- chose to resign instead. Garza was promoted to her position by a unanimous vote of the council. Two then-councilmembers and two city hall insiders say that Garza never forgot the circumstances of his own rise to power.

According to a person close to the situation: "Jesus saw at that time which way the political winds were blowing, and they were blowing towards a strong mayor's role."

One councilmember agrees that Garza is "the consummate weatherman," and that Todd brought enormous pressure to bear on Garza, allegedly screaming at him on a regular basis. Garza's subsequent acquiescence to Todd's will caused some frustrated councilmembers to wonder if this was one of those unfair situations in which the bratty child ends up getting all the attention. According to one city hall insider, "City hall folks believed that when Bruce said `Jump,' Jesus said, `How high?'"

"Absolute nonsense," Todd says. "Jesus Garza always exercised his professional judgment." He adds that he never yelled at his former employee.

Garza is also quick to refute the charge that he followed Todd lockstep, but concedes that he considered the mayor the "political leader of the council, and he carried that weight."

Former Jackie Goodman aide Ann Denkler says that Garza didn't need to follow Todd's lead -- he simply agreed with the mayor on most things. Councilmember Slusher concurs that Garza had a "natural connection" to the Chamber of Commerce crowd.

Former Councilmember Brigid Shea, now executive director of the Save Our Springs Alliance (S.O.S.), notes that Garza's obvious deferrals to Todd's policies -- whether they stemmed from self-preservation or a heartfelt belief -- were particularly galling to the four-member environmental council majority. To them, Shea says, Garza's actions clearly acknowledged that the business/development community was the first customer in line, in direct defiance of the voters of Austin. "I told Jesus, `You are not employed by Bruce Todd. You are not here to serve one person, but the majority of council.' I asked him, `How many members of council do we have to have before you accept that there is a clear policy direction to protect the environment in Austin?'"

As proof of Garza's anti-enviro bias, Shea and others point to his recommendation that the city seek a settlement rather than fight the lawsuit filed by FM Properties against the city over S.O.S. The recommendation was infuriating to those who believed that, at the very least, the city staff should have made an attempt to defend an ordinance passed overwhelmingly by more than two-thirds of the city's voters. The city manager counters that at the time staff believed it was better to have that suit settled before entering the cold climate of the 1995 lege session.

Another example of what Shea characterizes as a breach in Garza's duty occurred when outside counsel hired by the city opined that the city could not stay the Hays County jury verdict declaring the S.O.S. water quality ordinance invalid while it appealed. That "bad" advice, Shea says, caused council to vote to instate a substitute ordinance called Comp II, which was considerably weaker than S.O.S. "Counsel kept telling the councilmembers that the Hays County ruling declaring S.O.S. invalid could not be stayed," thus they needed to vote for Comp II to have at least something in place, Shea recalls. "But Assistant City Attorney Michael Cosentino kept catching me in the hall to tell me that city legal staff actually had a different interpretation.... But he was silenced by (other city staff) and Garza, and barred from presenting those arguments to council." The result: The anti-S.O.S. ruling was handily reversed, and the unnecessary replacement of S.O.S. with Comp II allowed a 20-month window for a mulititude of developers to slither out from under the stricter S.O.S. rules. Cosentino, who refused to comment for this story, was subsequently fired.

Garza responds that he followed the advice he received from outside lawyers at the time that it was impossible to stay the Hays County verdict. "We thought it best to strengthen water quality rules with Comp II," he says. As for Cosentino's role, Garza says he doesn't recall him having one.

Power Struggles

Despite their supposed alliance, Garza's career is marked by Todd's attempts to hack away at the city manager's authority. Take Garza's most recent accomplishment: the selection of Austin's new Chief of Police, Stan Knee. When former Chief Elizabeth Watson stepped down last January, Garza was directed to find a better chief fast. His then-boss Todd very publicly pressured Garza for weeks to select former Travis County Sheriff Doyne Bailey for the post, but Garza dug in his heels and cast a wide net outside of Austin, contending that he wished to keep the process apolitical. Others saw Garza's resistance to Todd's will as a stand against the usurpation of the city manager's powers.

Garza says he was just trying to do the right thing by exercising his right as city manager to choose whom he pleased, and the council would merely get the chance to confirm or deny his appointee. It probably wasn't lost on Garza that it was a politically easy time to stand up to Todd -- after all, the mayor had by that time already declared himself a lame duck . The chief selection process did serve to highlight Todd's career-long complaint that his own abilities to act effectively were limited under the council-manager form of government. However, the public had made it clear that it prefers the checks and balances the current system has to offer.

Austin American-Statesman editor Rich Oppel went a step further. At the end of a March 2 editorial lambasting Todd for trying to wrest control of the police chief selection process from Garza, Oppel wrote: "Some members of City Council frequently show that their idea of good government is 14 sweaty hands on the steering wheel." It's true that Garza was the proper person to pick the chief for the council to confirm. However, using Todd's naked maneuverings to question council's right to guide policy seemed unfair considering that the city charter calls for the councilmembers to make policy, not the manager. And surely there is something to be said for the fact that those "14 sweaty hands" were handed the keys by the majority of Austin voters. Garza's role, by law, is to ride shotgun and read the map.

And read it he has, to great success. The politically perilous police chief selection, for example, proceeded well enough despite concerns that popped up two weeks ago when Garza finally made his announcement: that he had taken too long (eight months), that he had not solicited ample public input, that none of his final candidates were minorities, and were all from smaller towns. Garza proved his mettle, though, by emerging from the twisted wreckage of an Austin political appointment process with hardly a scratch. "I've selected lots of different positions, but I never even imagined the kind of interest and politics generated by the chief selection process," Garza says. "That's my own inexperience and I realize that."

Not only has he acquitted himself well, notes Texas Monthly's Levy, but he has often "kept the council from looking stupid," too.

Other Garza fans credit him with extricating the city from the financially draining duty of running Brackenridge Hospital. He brokered the plan to allow the non-profit health care network Seton to take over management of Brack -- including the financial responsibility -- under a 30-year lease. Seton pledged to do this while still providing the same level of charity care that the hospital had been offering needy Austinites. It also agreed to take on the liability. "The community will always owe Jesus for what he did with Brack," says former Todd aide Trey Salinas. "He singlehandedly fixed it."

However, not all of Garza's policy pushes have been so well-received. His penchant for privatization nearly drove him from office last summer. Garza's list of a host of city operations and services for which he was researching money-saving privatization options matched the former mayor's -- but not the council's -- mood. In a 5-2 vote, the council, led by Slusher, cut back on Garza's ability to put privatization on his agenda, demanding that Garza follow the lead of the majority of councilmembers, who favored researching ways to save money and be more competitive before considering selling off the city's assets. The vote -- characterized as more of a political skirmish between Todd and Slusher than a knock on Garza -- resulted in the inadvertent wounding of the city manager. A month later, right before Labor Day weekend, Garza told council he was throwing in the towel to take the city manager job in Corpus Christi.

Garza, who even Shea admits is a "genuinely nice person," was hurt by the hoopla, and doubted his ability to "survive the turmoil," he recalls. "People thought we were going to privatize everything... that we were holding a going-out-of-business sale." Garza explains that his bid-seeking process at the time was more about learning how to be competitive than finding buyers. "I think that there was a feeling of mistrust," Garza adds. "I get real frustrated with that. My integrity is very important to me."

The divided council was nearly united in its efforts to retain him, even offering to sweeten Garza's deal. Slusher was the only councilmember not to vote for Garza's raise to $125,000 a year. Past Frustrations,
Future Hopes Slusher's troubles with Garza were well documented at the recent retreat. After Watson's set-up, Slusher read from a list of 10 examples of "frustrations" he said he had experienced with city management since he first rounded out the then 4-3 environmental majority back in 1996. Garza was forced to listen to a litany of alleged past lapses in staff performance. Among other things, Slusher listed his year-long struggle with city management over the city-owned Electric Utility. "In traditional style," Slusher told staffers at the retreat, "the management used a backdrop of horror that would ensue if the council didn't go along" with staff's plan to slash the general fund transfer from the Utility in half. In December of 1996, Slusher and Councilmember Beverly Griffith fought for and won a more gradual decrease in the transfer, which, contrary to staff's predictions, helped result in the recent removal of the "negative watch" on the city's bond rating. (Garza responds that his staff was merely following the professional advice given in the Price Waterhouse study of the Utility.)

Also on the Utility front, Slusher criticized staff's insistence on awarding rate breaks to the city's six largest corporate customers. At the time, staff claimed that the move was absolutely necessary to keep the companies from leaving the system once deregulation hit. However, just as most Lege experts outside city management predicted, deregulation didn't happen this last session, meaning that the city gave away $22 million just to ensure one extra year of loyalty from the corporations. Who would make up the extra money in their bills? Residents and small businesses. "But the point is," Garza responds, "that next session they're going to do something towards deregulating and we have been doing an enormous amount of work to make that department better-run and more competitive."

Slusher's list went on -- included on it were the Davenport MUD deal, a "pre-packaged" airport deal, trying to "railroad the privatization of the city's health clinics," and failing to follow-up on a resolution to work on pedestrian issues. "We do not have time to wait and see how our relationship [between the staff and the new council] works out," Watson said adamantly. "This has to to end now."

With the advent of the new unified council, both Garza and the councilmembers are confident that the friction of the past will lessen considerably. According to Garza -- and Slusher -- it already has. Both use the recent team effort on dealing with the repeal of Austin-bashing Senate Bill 1704 as an example. (The repeal meant that Austin had a chance to reinstate some restrictions on developments that threaten the water quality in the Barton Creek watershed.) In a show of unity, Garza and three councilmembers formed a council task force to gauge citizen input, which meant the city manager went along on dog-and-pony shows to local editorial boards, sitting knee-to-knee with Slusher and calling for the creation of expiration dates to stop speculative developers. That was certainly a first. "I think it's much different -- on this we've been literally elbow to elbow to work together toward a solution," Garza says. The cooperative effort on SB1704 "has done a great deal to restore everyone's confidence that we are here to serve -- not to dictate policy." Slusher strongly agrees, adding that Garza and his staff deserve praise for their recent responsiveness.

Asked if there is anything he would like to add to a story about himself, Garza thought a moment and said: "Part of what I learned about being a manager is that there are decisions I make in this office that are unpopular, and the only thing that one can ask is that if there is disagreement with that decision, then what they need to try to understand is that you've used every capacity to come at a right decision, and that decision shouldn't be taken personally."

The climate appears to be less chilly since the new council took office. If Garza's "weather skills" continue to hold out, he should be with us for at least a couple more years. As former Todd aide Salinas puts it, Garza's "biggest achievement may be that he's still there at all."

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