She's One of Us

'Austin's child' Toby Futrell takes on Austin's burdens at City Hall

She's One of Us
Photo By John Anderson

She's ready for the hardest job in town, but Toby Futrell is not ready for her close-up. "Do I have to do this?" she asks -- rhetorically, good-naturedly, but not facetiously -- at the thought of being "profiled" in the local media. "Do you know how weird this feels?"

Well, we suppose so, but there's no getting around the fact that Toby Hammett Futrell, Austin's new city manager, is not just a high-profile player but a local celebrity, already on the verge of iconhood. That there's something different or special about her. "That's such a setup," she snorts. "Everyone in city government is 'different' and 'special.'"

But they're not nearly as popular as Toby Futrell. "We'll see how long that lasts," she laughs, in the shadow of the city's $72 million budget deficit. "The honeymoon is already over."

Over and over, since Futrell inherited from Jesus Garza a $2 billion budget, 10,000 employees, and an extra-large bottle of extra-strength Tylenol, Austinites have asked the same question: "Why does she want this job?" It's really two questions in one. In its simpler form, it means "Why does she want this job?" A difficult, thankless job that eats people up, especially now with Austin suffering from a nasty post-boom hangover. Well, whatever. We're lucky to have her. Good luck and Godspeed.

But the other question, the one that feels weird, is "Why does she want this job?" Toby Futrell is, a month into her tenure, already Austin's most popular city manager in decades because she is such a typical Austinite, and thus such an atypical high-level city bureaucrat. "That's it! She's one of us!" Council Member Daryl Slusher declaims. Then he smiles. Then he shrugs. Even Austin's most loquacious council member feels no need to elaborate.

From KFC to City Hall

Futrell is well accustomed to the glare of the public spotlight, having been Garza's understudy and troubleshooter, and the City Council's favorite staffer, for some years. It's being typecast as the Accidental Manager that makes Toby Futrell uneasy. The media "is playing up the idiosyncrasies of my life," she says.

"I am Austin's child, and I came here and had a lost decade. I loved every minute of it and wouldn't change a minute of it." Most famously, readers of the Statesman now know -- thanks to Futrell's first City Hall boss, Byron Marshall -- that Toby Futrell is intimately familiar with Hippie Hollow. "All I can say is if anyone has Polaroids," she laughs, "I'm buying."

The thought of Jesus Garza, or Camille Cates Barnett, or Jorge Carrasco -- Futrell's three permanent, full-time predecessors -- soaking it up at Hippie Hollow is, first of all, not a pretty image, but more importantly, the wrong frame of reference. They were all professional city managers, as have been most of the topsiders with offices on the east side of City Hall, coming from and heading for other communities with similar jobs on offer. And while Garza (unlike the others) was, like Futrell, brought up within Austin government and not a creature of that circuit, he easily could be. Futrell could not be.

"It isn't about 'being a city manager' for me," she says. "I don't want to be a manager in Houston or Dallas. This will be the only one. When this tenure is over I probably will leave city government and start over. And that's not the traditional path: You come from another city, stay three to five years, get fired from 50% of your jobs, and move to the next bigger city. I've spent my entire career in Austin, and very few managers have ever worked down in the organization. They've all done their cursory ride on the back of a garbage truck and a day at the wastewater plant, but few have worked day-in, day-out, in line departments. It's a different path. So I bring different things to the table."

Futrell started working for the city in 1985 as an entry-level accounting clerk in the Health and Human Services department, which is even more Nowhere, in terms of the city hierarchy, than where Garza started, as a gofer in the office of then-City Manager Dan Davidson. "Jesus is also unusual in that he worked in line departments," says Futrell, but adds, "he's a very focused, very motivated guy who finished college and worked his way up according to a plan and knew exactly what he wanted to do. And that's not me. I drifted into city government."

She's One of Us
Photo By John Anderson

When Garza -- only two years older than Futrell -- was working his way up to head of Solid Waste Services, then assistant city manager, she was waiting tables and running down check-kiters for Kentucky Fried Chicken. As for ever-so-many Austinites, a steady government job seemed all the foundation necessary for Futrell and her husband Don, a builder, to embody the local lifestyle indefinitely.

"For me, it was about living in Austin, not working in Austin," she says. "But I loved the direct contact with the citizens, and I liked learning to fix things, and I developed an increasing pride in the city and the people who work for it, and so I moved along. It wasn't until very late in my career with the city that I decided to move into management, because I realized the obvious thing -- that I could have a greater impact."

Strapped to the Ambulance

"Very late" is a bit of an exaggeration -- seven years later, in 1992, Futrell had finished her B.A. and earned an M.B.A. while working full time, and was a senior staffer in the City Auditor's office when Byron Marshall, then deputy city manager under Camille Barnett, hired her to be his assistant in 1992. She took the same job with Garza when he replaced Barnett in 1994; he then promoted her to assistant city manager in 1997, and made her his deputy and heir-apparent in 1999. Despite the relish with which City Hall's critics have venerated Futrell as a superior alternative to Garza, Futrell says, "He is one of the mentors in my life."

"Do you know what it takes to pick someone who started as an entry-level clerk in a city department and put them in charge of that department? That's what he did." Could she tell that her ascent under Garza's wing somehow broke the rules of the bureaucracy? "I don't have much of a hierarchical soul, so I didn't feel it was unusual. But I felt it from other people."

Garza saw in Futrell what most who've worked with her have seen: a propensity for hard work, an easy manner with a wide range of stakeholders, an obvious rapport with the City Council, and a willingness to attack problems at street level, head-on and sometimes full-body. (One of her fans' favorite Futrell stories involves her strapping herself into a racing ambulance to see what it felt like to hit a speed bump.) But her grooming as city manager also owes something to Garza's own experience in the job.

When Jorge Carrasco was deposed in 1987 over various conflicts with the Frank Cooksey-era council, the city stumbled through more than two years of interim managers and national searches before hiring Camille Barnett. "They used to call City Hall 'Hollywood,'" says Mayor Gus Garcia, "because everyone was 'acting.'" When Barnett in turn got bounced in 1994 after the Brackenridge Hospital financial meltdown, Garza -- who had only just come back to town after a five-year sojourn in Corpus Christi -- got thrust into the hot seat without much prep time. (Marshall, Barnett's own designated heir-apparent, left on her heels to be Atlanta's city administrator, then came back here to run the Austin Revitalization Authority.)

So Garza thought it important to make sure someone -- Futrell -- was prepared to take his job, and when he decided to retire (of his own accord, lucky for him), her ascent to the top spot was inevitable, despite some half-hearted talk about looking elsewhere. "We already had the best person for the job right here," says Slusher, who along with Mayor Pro Tem Jackie Goodman called for the city to hire Futrell on the day Garza announced his retirement.

As did Garza himself: "I think Toby could step into my job tomorrow if a bus were to hit me," he said during his announcement. "I would think that would be the first place to look." (On that day in January, when asked what could stop Futrell from becoming city manager, one City Hall staffer answered "Armageddon?")

But since, as Garcia noted, "you don't want to hire a city manager on a 4-3 vote," the deed didn't get done until the rest of the council -- most especially (surprise!) Beverly Griffith -- could be brought around, which happened more quickly than it might have in a year when the city wasn't facing such critical fiscal woes. After taking the unusual step of naming Futrell acting city manager ("designee") before Garza was even gone, the Council finally gave her the keys to the car in April. She officially took over May 1, in the first orderly transition of power on City Hall's east side in recent memory.

Designated Translator

Among her first acts was a symbolic dispelling of the ghosts of the Garza era. "Jesus will hate this part," she says, "but he's a very formal guy, and he required every man to wear a tie. So at one of our first management team meetings, we had a tie-burning ceremony -- got a metal trash can and started a bonfire. We had to have the fire chief put it out."

It's not the first time Futrell's taken on the task of changing Austin's ways -- that is what made her famous, what gave her the support both within and outside City Hall to move gracefully into the top spot. Jesus Garza gave her the power, and former Mayor Kirk Watson gave her the opportunity, to become the public face of Smart Growth. As toxic as those words have become, back in the day the Smart Growth Initiative was hailed as a fundamental change in Austin's M.O., and Futrell both embodied and aimed to deliver on that promise.

"In the beginning, Toby was in charge of land use and growth management stuff, and she was very decent," says Save Our Springs Alliance executive director Bill Bunch, a frequent critic of both Watson and Garza but, back in the late Nineties, a supporter of the Smart Growth initiative. "To the extent that I give [Garza] any credit, it was because he let Toby do a good job." It was when Garza rotated Futrell off that beat and on to public safety -- where she oversaw the city's meet-and-confer contract with the Austin Police Association and Austin's response to September 11 -- that, according to Bunch, the whole Smart Growth deal went south.

Futrell on the City Council dais in 1999, talking with then-Council Member Beverly Griffith. Former Council Member Bill Spelman is in the foreground.
Futrell on the City Council dais in 1999, talking with then-Council Member Beverly Griffith. Former Council Member Bill Spelman is in the foreground. (Photo By John Anderson)

But Futrell's position was already established. Three months after becoming an assistant city manager, Futrell sat alongside the mayor as angry suburbanites in Circle C Ranch rushed the stage, yelling and screaming about being annexed and after an imagined slight from Garza. (Among the disgruntled annexees were her own neighbors in Northwest Austin.) When the city embarked on a wholesale rewrite of its Land Development Code, Futrell was in charge, and even though the effort collapsed in frustration, Futrell got credit for trying to do the impossible.

When Watson impulsively gave away five blocks of Downtown Austin to Computer Sciences Corp. to make enviro leaders happy, it was Futrell who negotiated the complex contract. (When, later, it came out that the city had no such contract with Intel Corp., Futrell took the blame, even though she didn't do that deal herself.) And when, in May 1998, the voters approved bonds to purchase thousands of acres of land over the Edwards Aquifer for conservation, Futrell danced barefoot within the drum circle, under the stars, at the victory party thrown by SOS. (Garza was there, too. He didn't dance.)

As a prime player behind the signature initiative of the most popular mayor and council of the last three decades, Futrell got to demonstrate the quality that really set her apart not just from Garza, but from almost any top City Hall staffer of recent times. Just as Garza's sensitivity to Austin political nuance was often surprisingly weak, Futrell's has been surprisingly supple. "She's smart, but more important, she's politically aware," says former Council Member Bill Spelman. "Without being devious." (Or, in the view of another Futrell fan and Watson/Garza foe, Texas Monthly publisher Mike Levy, "She finds it congenitally impossible to lie.")

"It's hard to trust people in a big-city government, in a community like this one, with such a slippery political deck," Futrell says. "I'm really fortunate to have good relationships with the members of the City Council. Most new city managers have good will, but not necessarily good relationships. A lot of what goes wrong between city councils and city managers boils down to trust and communication, which sounds trite -- you could say that about any friendship, any marriage. But it's true."

Which gives another spin on Slusher's assessment, "She's one of us." For the past five years, Futrell has been the translator between the council (and the community) and the city bureaucracy, which speak different languages. "I consider myself aligned with this city, and because of this I don't feel out of alignment with this council that the city elected," she says. "The city could, someday, move in a direction where I personally wouldn't want to be headed, and then we'd all be unhappy. But it would be time then for a different decision anyway."

Money Changes Everything

Right now, Futrell faces a bunch of unhappy decisions, as the city struggles to balance its books in the teeth of a fiscal shortfall that is, as she points out, "structural." Most of the city's high-dollar costs are fixed, either legally or politically -- most notably, the ever-increasing outlays for public health and public safety, which between them already consume more than Austin collects in taxes each year. (The city would go bankrupt, in the ordinary if not the official sense, were it not for the profits of Austin Energy.)

In the short term, there's not enough room to wiggle into the black by raising taxes or revenues of any kind, so something -- a lot of somethings -- will be sacrificed, an experience that neither Garza nor Barnett had to endure. (The last time Austin was in such bad fiscal shape was during the aforementioned Hollywood era, under acting city managers John Ware and Barney Knight.) "Jesus came in at a time of political crisis, which is fundamentally different from economic crisis," she says. "If you can't handle political crisis, you wouldn't need to be in this job.

"The fact that I have to be part of such hard decisions is painful to me," Futrell continues. "Everyone wants to come into the job when you can do cool things." (Her example is a new facility for Austin City Limits, discussed for both the old airport and the downtown block now abandoned by CSC.) "But this isn't going to be the time. Do I have bad timing or what?" (Although, looking at the bright side, Slusher suggests, "I imagine it only gets better from here.")

Already, Futrell has gotten high marks from council members -- including Griffith's successor Betty Dunkerley, who used to work for Futrell -- for how she's handled the budget crisis. Compared to the Garza years, when council members grumbled that they were basically handed a budget that city staff had decided in advance and felt little constrained to actually follow thereafter, Futrell has opened this year's cycle up to the council and community, and as such to political risk that Garza would never tolerate. "In the past, we'd guess when we did the policy budget, and we'd see how the council reacted," Dunkerley says. "Toby doesn't want to guess."

Showing the cards that city staff used to hold close to the vest, and thus inviting discussion and debate, is consistent with Futrell's approach within her management team (itself newly stocked after she moved up, Dunkerley moved out, and former assistant city manager Roger Chan moved to D.C.). "The team's been running on empty the last few months, but I'm seeing exactly the dynamics I want to see," she says.

"There's joking, and people can take a joke. There are ideas being expressed, and people are adding to the ideas. In government, it's easy to get territorial and hard to [believe that] anyone's success is everyone's success. ... I want Toby Futrell's city of Austin to be tolerant and flexible, just like the community. I want it to be creative, which is hard for government. I want people to be risk takers, which is also hard for government. But more than anything else, I want people who work for the city to love the city as much as I do. Then I can't lose. Nobody will lose."

So even though nobody will be happy come mid-September, when the council holds its nose and approves the fiscal 2003 budget, Futrell is probably right -- nobody will feel like they "lost." What happens then? "There's a lot I want to accomplish, but the economic situation may not let me," she says. "But I haven't given any thought to how long I'll be here, or what I want to make sure happens while I'm here. I don't have a record I want to break" -- that would be Dan Davidson's nine years -- "nor do I want to just do it for a year to say I did it. And perhaps part of my insecurity right now is that I don't think that way, and maybe I should."

But she has thought about what she would do when her run at City Hall does end. "I always knew that the next job after this is the start of another life," she says. "If the world works out this way, I want to get a doctorate in something completely unrelated, like focusing on some era in literature. The perfect next step would be to write a satire of City Hall. It's the fantasy of a lot of city managers." n

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