Is That All There Is?

Joe Lessard Leaving City Post

Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard

photograph by John Anderson

The rumors started over a year ago, but it should come as no surprise to those familiar with the protracted pace of city government that it took this long to hear that Assistant City Manager Joe Lessard would be leaving his post at the city of Austin. Last June, when the then-new City Council took a retreat with upper-level city staff, the scuttlebutt held that Lessard's departure was almost imminent, particularly given his noticeable absence from the retreat. "Oct. 1, 1997," was the date most people predicted Lessard would walk. Yet, when asked last year about this alleged impending doom, Lessard laughed it off, explaining that he had his sights set on advancing to the city manager's post one day. Besides, he added at the time, "the city of Austin is as good as it gets." In reality, Lessard's duties were reassigned last June, moving him from oversight of the police, fire, emergency medical services, and aviation departments to focusing solely on the completion of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. City Manager Jesus Garza framed Lessard's job transition as a necessity because the completion of the airport would require his sole focus. After all, Garza explained, the $700 million project was clearly the largest and costliest undertaking in the city's history. (Garza did not return phone calls for this article.)

One clue that permanent changes in Lessard's career were afoot last year was that his $103,471 annual salary was changed from being paid out of the city's general fund, like the rest of the assistant city managers, to being paid out of the Aviation Department budget. The switch cleared the way for a new ACM, Toby Futrell, to be paid out of the general fund. Futrell also took over Lessard's office at City Hall, while Lessard was shuttled off to new quarters at the airport. Although no one would confirm it for the record then or now, Lessard - once a golden boy protégé of former City Manager Camille Barnett - had obviously been put out to pasture.

So now it looks as if that Oct. 1 resignation deadline is going to come true after all, albeit a year later. Though he was quoted in the Chronicle last August saying that it would take "a pretty phenomenal opportunity" to convince him to leave his post prior to the May 1, 1999 ribbon-cutting at the new airport, Lessard recently announced he would leave with no new prospects lined up and, in fact, in a bit of a muddle about what to do next in his life. After 10 years as an Austin ACM and a total of 15 years in city administration, Lessard appears to be caught in a fairly public midlife crisis.

What Next?

To be sure, Lessard's professional roots are fairly entrenched in municipal government. With a master's degree in public administration, Lessard served under Barnett during her ACM tenure at the city of Dallas. Five years later, in 1989, Barnett, as Austin's City Manager, recruited Lessard out of the private sector as her first ACM appointment here. Lessard proudly points out that in his near-decade with the city of Austin, he has overseen 16 different departments and several "very complex, very public, very large projects."

While much of his work, such as establishing the Drainage Utility Department and the dedicated street maintenance fee, are the kind of accomplishments only the wonkiest political junkies keep track of, Lessard has popped into the public eye several times in the past several years, and not always in a positive light. Along with his work on the airport, Lessard also had a hand in laying the groundwork for the Austin Convention Center. But he says his proudest accomplishment was the creation of the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve, a unique land conservation model that began on his desk. Lessard also headed up the Austin Police Department during 1996 and 1997 when Police Chief Elizabeth Watson resigned under a shroud of controversy; the near-simultaneous release of an audit of the police department had revealed communication breakdowns on every level, beginning right at the top. At the same time, reports of flagging EMS response times put pressure on Lessard from another of his departments.

Only a few months later, shortly after the new City Council took office in mid-June 1997, Lessard - once regarded as a potential candidate for City Manager Garza's job - was reassigned to sole oversight of the new airport. The Garza-initiated maneuver, viewed by cynics as the equivalent of shipping the enemy off to Siberia, effectively took Lessard out of the inner circle at City Hall. That widely discussed scenario, however, is not the sort of thing people want to acknowledge in print.

"The normal track for a city manager would be to either move up or move from city to city," Lessard admits. So, given that moving up within the city's ranks no longer seems to be an option, and that his recent marriage will likely keep him Austin-bound for a while, Lessard says he is considering options outside city administration - such as working for a nonprofit corporation. "This is a change of direction for me," he says hopefully. Although he now admits that he and Garza began speaking in February 1997 about this transition, he did not make a decision during the last year and a half about what that new direction would be. He admits that several life changes - the death of his brother in 1997, his marriage, and his recent 44th birthday - have made him reassess his perspective and personal goals.

Airport Woes

Despite the fact that Lessard has been overseeing the new airport project since 1992, and that the airport's grand opening is less than a year away, no one at the city will admit that changing the leadership of the high-dollar venture at this late date signifies any kind of failure on the part of Lessard - or of the airport project.

According to City Manager Garza, the decision to move on was Lessard's; according to Chuck Griffith, an assistant city attorney who will take over Lessard's duties, the decision for Lessard to leave now came straight from Garza. Lessard himself has been vague to a fault on the issue. However, with his phase-out tying up so neatly, it is not hard to imagine that the Oct. 1 switch has always been part of the plan.

"In the end, I sort of worked myself out of the position," Lessard says, explaining that there has been very little left for him to oversee concerning the airport since the beginning of this year. With all the construction contracts bid, awarded, and negotiated, all that's left seems to be the hammers and nails. "I think the organization can handle it without Joe Lessard," he says.

The man in charge of overseeing construction, John Almond, director of the New Airport Project Team, agrees. "We're now at the point where the work that's being done is being done by contractors. In the past there was a lot of discussion about design, programming, master planning, redevelopment, and that's pretty much behind us," Almond says.

However, given the recent controversy over the awarding of the vending contracts at the new airport, it also isn't hard to imagine an alternative scenario leading to Lessard's exit. After the City Council awarded the contract for the news and gift shops at the airport to Paradies Inc., the Austin American-Statesman reported that the company in 1994 had been convicted of 83 counts of mail fraud in Atlanta, for which owner Don Paradies was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Lessard took the blame for bringing the contract to council without first informing councilmembers of the convictions, although several of the citizen members of the Airport Advisory Board, which oversees the airport contracts, admit that they also knew about the convictions long before the contract reached council. By all accounts, the City Council was livid over the public embarrassment. The vending contract was quickly rebid. In fact, overseeing the re-awarding of the news and gifts contract will end up being Lessard's last act at the airport, besides coasting through the city's budget season to Oct. 1. (This week, the Airport Advisory Board again recommended awarding the contract to Paradies and News & Gift Shops International-Austin Joint Venture.)

Airport Reshuffling

Avation Director Charles Gates

photograph by John Anderson

Several other changes in the air at Aviation, however, make it apparent that the Paradies slip-up was no minor gaffe. Aviation Director Charles Gates, who oversees operations at Mueller Airport, is also being bumped from his position, so that Griffith can take over the administration of both airports. Gates, who was also involved with the Paradies foul-up, says that his new duties have yet to be finalized. According to Griffith, though, Gates will now report to him and will concentrate on the finance end of the new airport. Gates wouldn't comment on whether or not the Paradies scandal had anything to do with his being bumped down the ladder at Aviation.

As for Griffith, the up-and-comer in this whole affair, aviation is no new hobby. Although he has served in the city's legal department since 1990, he spent two decades administrating airlines and airports, including nine years as a vice president at American Airlines. Griffith was the brains behind the city's recent coup in persuading the Federal Aviation Administration to allow the revenue generated by the Mueller redevelopment to be channeled back into the city's coffers as opposed to an airport-only fund as federal law dictates. Despite this triumph of legal maneuvering, however, Griffith is still a babe in the woods when it comes to the new airport. Sources close to the project say they doubt Griffith will stay in his position very long, and that he is merely serving in some sort of "clean-up" capacity. At any rate, top city officials have placed an incredibly tight lid on whatever shortcomings there are at the airport that precipitated such a dramatic reshuffling of the project's leaders. And Almond, the new project director, will likely be given "additional responsibilities" when the new airport project and Mueller Airport eventually merge operations, Griffith says.

For Lessard, however, the reshuffling doesn't come with another job within the city. The scenario that emerges, then, is that Lessard was reassigned in early 1997, following what apparently was perceived as a breakdown in his abilities overseeing the police, but instead of being fired, he was put on the slow train to China by being assigned the sole stewardship of the airport - a job that didn't exist until Garza decided to create such a position. According to some, there was never enough for Lessard to do once his other duties were taken away and then, following the very public Paradies scandal, the final nail was put in his career's coffin. But don't hold your breath waiting for any such admission to leak out of City Hall.

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