Trading Places at City Hall

Musical chairs at City Hall

Austin Police Dept. Deputy Chief Michael McDonald
Austin Police Dept. Deputy Chief Michael McDonald (Photo By John Anderson)

In a memo last week to Mayor Gus Garcia and City Council members, City Manager Jesus Garza announced the latest round of personnel changes affecting Austin city government: Roger Chan, who has served as assistant city manager for economic development for less than 16 months, would be reassigned to the Government Relations Office effective Monday, March 18. Garza says he asked Chan to spend the next year focusing "entirely" on securing federal funds for homeland security, transportation, and other key issues.

Chan wasn't the only city official to get a new seat in this game of civic musical chairs. Garza asked Financial Services Director John Stephens to temporarily replace Chan, and moved Stephens' deputy Vickie Schubert into Stephens' position (Stephens expects he'll return to his former job). The changes come on the heels of Assistant City Manager (and current City Council candidate) Betty Dunkerley's recent retirement, Austin Police Dept. Deputy Chief Michael McDonald's temporary assignment to Dunkerley's vacant office, and of course, Garza's departure to the Lower Colorado River Authority, with Deputy City Manager Toby Futrell waiting to be anointed formally as Garza's successor. Austin's other assistant city manager, Lisa Gordon, at her post for less than a year, is now the veteran among Austin's ACMs.

You might think that, facing the current economic malaise, a difficult budget cycle soon to get under way, and uncertainty regarding the future makeup of the City Council, all this sudden (and temporary) managerial staff shifting would foster a bit of City Hall nervousness. Not only is Gordon the assistant city manager with the longest tenure, but she's the only one among her peers who isn't "departing," "acting" or "interim." Even Futrell, presumably her official-boss-to-be, can't claim that distinction.

But Gordon cites the experience and institutional knowledge Futrell, Stephens, and McDonald have acquired during their tenures with the city government, as well as the city's efforts to plan ahead for future budget shortfalls, as reasons to believe the recent flurry of restructuring won't hinder efforts to keep the city running smoothly -- even during the bust. "I think if you've worked in government for many years, you've gone through many budget phases," said Gordon, a certified public accountant who oversees the city's capital improvement program (CIP) management services. "Toby's been with the city for a number of years. She remembers 10 years ago" -- the last time Austin faced a serious economic downturn.

Aviation Dept. Executive Director Jim Smith, himself a former assistant city manager who reported directly to Chan, wouldn't discuss the details of his boss' reassignment, but said, "I don't see it causing any change at all." Stephens agrees. "I'm fine with it. This won't interrupt any projects ... You have a lot of very strong and capable people working for the city." Stephens says he isn't sure how long it will take to find a permanent replacement for Chan, but that the city plans to conduct a nationwide candidate search.

A native of Chevy Chase, Md., Chan came to Austin in November 2000 specifically to take the ACM job, and became the highest-ranking Asian-American ever to serve in Austin city government. While living in D.C., he represented governmental relations for several high tech firms, worked in local government, and made important contacts that Garza hopes will come in handy as the city tries to solve its current fiscal woes. In the past the city has employed a full-time grant person charged with bringing home the pork, but no one has been filling that role for several years, said GRO officer John Hrncir. With input from U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett and U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, the office is currently assembling a list of appropriations requests and preparing for Congress' reauthorization of the federal transportation funding program when its current enabling legislation, TEA-21, expires in 2003. Though Chan will be associated with the government relations office, he will directly report to the city manager," he said.

While he's "excited" to assume his new position, Chan says he's leaving a job he greatly enjoyed. As the ACM who handled economic development, he oversaw the Convention Center and its new hotel, the redevelopment of Palmer Auditorium and Town Lake Park, and other downtown projects, as well as more peripheral ones such as the Creedmoor-Maha's recent request for a permit to pump 620 million gallons of water a year from the Edwards Aquifer, which the city opposed. Earlier this year, he traveled with an Austin delegation to Adelaide, Australia, for the biennial World Congress on Information Technology, an event that Austin will host in 2006. He describes the current changes affecting city government as "normal."

Although Chan's new job involves bringing in federal dollars and exploring alternative funding sources, he won't be bringing in any additional funding of his own: His new position offers no salary increase. "That's why I've been so puzzled by so many people congratulating me," he said. "Everything's the same. It would be nice, though," he continued jokingly, "or a commission. That would certainly make me work harder."

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Jesus Garza, Roger Chan, John Stephens, Vickie Schubert, Betty Dunkerley, Michael McDonald, Toby Futrell, Lisa Gordon, Jim Smith, John Hrncir

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