The Usual Suspects

Looking for new 'leadership' for a haunted City Hall

The Usual Suspects
Illustration By Doug Potter

Last year, when Will Wynn became our city's 50th mayor, Austinites found their seats, grabbed their popcorn, and settled in for a long-awaited new chapter in our town's often-cinematic history. The audience didn't agree, exactly, on what movie they were going to see – was it Return of the Magnificent 7-0, or was it Showdown at 4-to-3 Junction? But in either case, they thought it would be a ripping yarn, with heroes to cheer and villains to hiss, and righteousness triumphant in the end.

Perhaps they were naive to think this, since they'd gotten ample warning – not least of all from Wynn himself – that the year just past at City Hall would be dark and depressing. Whatever movie emerged would have to be low-budget (very low-budget) and experimental; kind of talky and cerebral (like Wynn himself); and lacking the big production numbers, cast of thousands, dancing girls, and great special effects seen in beloved previous episodes of the Austin saga, like The Watson Wonder Years and The Salamander Strikes Back. On that score, Wynn's World has delivered what it promised: not much.

And, for many in the audience, not enough. Fairly or not, word of mouth hasn't been boffo, and the reviews are definitely mixed. Many people feel bad about saying so out loud, of course; this is still a town that treats leaders like friends and calls them by their first names. But milling about in the lobby, you hear stuff like this (inevitably off-the-record quotes from actual viewers, none of whom are "council gadflies" or "frequent City Hall critics"):

"It's been really, really bad. As bad as it's ever been. It's almost impossible for city government to get anything important done."

"The lack of leadership on most issues should embarrass them all. They seem timid, too willing to play it safe, too comfortable."

"I've given up on this council. Will has been a huge disappointment. I'm just waiting for the next election cycle."

Again, such harsh reactions may be unfair. Austin is a community – and the hub of an urban region – with a lot of chronic, systemic problems that we, the people, need to tackle right quick. But Austin has a bad habit of avoiding such big-city realities, and then of coping with its nagging fears and its lingering regrets by rounding up (and roughing up) the usual suspects. Like Wynn and the City Council, and City Manager Toby Futrell and her team, and prominent stakeholders throughout the community.

But politics is a performance art, and word of mouth matters, and even if City Hall doesn't deserve to be panned quite so roundly, there aren't many real rave reviews either. Plenty of people – the people who gave Wynn his commanding victory in the 2003 mayor's race – were, and still are, looking for "leadership" and "passion" and "accountability" and, yes, "consensus" from City Hall, even (no, especially) in the midst of an economic crisis. And they can't find it.

And they don't want to make do without it as the community is asked to make increasingly difficult and historic decisions – about the economy, the environment, growth management, transportation and infrastructure, and future budget priorities – that will shape the city and region for generations, and that start, oh, right about now. From that angle, what started as a heroic adventure (or at least Will and Toby's Excellent Adventure) looks more like a moody mystery, or a crime story – or maybe a ghost story.

No Money to Follow

The leading lady, of course, earns rave reviews, even working with a bad script, and even from critics who have little good to say about "city staff," as well as from the co-stars. "Toby Futrell happens to be one of the most capable people I've ever worked with," Will Wynn says.

Many go further, seeing in the city manager the "leadership" and "passion" they would like to see in the people they actually elected. Hence, Toby Futrell's performance has overshadowed that of her co-stars, in a way that city managers typically do not. (Remember, city managers are hirelings, serving at the pleasure of the council.) At City Council meetings, citizens and stakeholders have begun to eliminate the middlemen; they point their questions directly to Futrell, and she answers them, and the council watches.

That's not such a bad thing. "Toby is a lot more hands-on than most managers, and I think some in the community hold her to a different standard," says Council Member Daryl Slusher. "But it doesn't bother me if Toby is seen as the face and voice of City Hall, because she's so good, so hands-on, and so sincere about wanting to address citizen needs and solve problems."

Both Futrell and Wynn, though, feel the manager's starring role is a function, entirely or almost so, of the script and the fiscal constraints. "I understand the perception that the city manager's power has been increasing, but I disagree with that," Wynn says. "It's purely part of the economic downturn. What we need to do now is more central to her job."

The Usual Suspects
Illustration By Doug Potter

That is, it's the budget, stupid. "It's easier for the council to be high-profile and visible in boom times, when there's great resources and lots of activity," Futrell says. "And as the economic opportunities change, you'll see a different dynamic from our council. Right now we haven't had those opportunities. They haven't been here. It's all been about finding ways to reduce operations – which puts the agenda squarely in my lap."

Futrell, as a good city manager should, disclaims any – and we mean any – notion that she is setting the agenda: "I'm the COO, not the CEO. The council makes the decisions and the framework under which you operate, and there's no stronger policy tool than a budget – how are you going to spend money, and on what. Ultimately, the decisions are not mine."

Ironically, even though Futrell is such a dominant presence at City Hall, her reading of the balance of power is more true now than it once was. The downturn has forced the council to do more than it had done – or been asked to do – during the boom. City Council members have complained for years about being presented budgets by Futrell's predecessors as faits accomplis, to which they did little but tweak the edges. Not so this time. "The council worked with us all the way through this," Futrell says. "Every one of them understands the situation, what has to happen, what choices need to be made, and then they made the choices. There are councils across the state who didn't do that, and where the pull and tug of personalities added to the economic pressures, and it left those cities in disarray. Here, you didn't see that."

Example A is, of course, Dallas, where Mayor Laura Miller finally (after two very chaotic years) forced out City Manager Ted Benavides. But "disarray" can also be found in our own City Hall's recent history with bust and boom. Consider Camille Barnett, who had a lot of "passion" and "leadership ability" of her own – though not much of Futrell's empathy or popularity – and who, you may remember, got fired. It was a lesson learned well by Jesús Garza, who, while no pushover behind the scenes, was a model of just-doin'-my-job-sir diffidence before the cameras. "Jesús was a very strong city manager," Futrell says. "In personality terms, sure, he's quieter. But it's almost impossible to compare his relationship with Kirk [Watson] to mine with Will. The times are so wildly different."

Watson himself, though agreeing that boom is better than bust, has a more philosophical perspective. "Obviously she's a very talented and strong city manager, and you have a talented council," the former mayor says. "But council-manager government works best when there's a recognition that policy and management are a continuum. They flow together, and there are times where you can't tell which is which." He notes that he made a conscious effort, upon being swept into power in the Green Machine landslide of 1997, to build bridges between the new council and Garza's team, "because ... there had been somewhat of a war between council and management. You can't have effective government when the two are at war."

While the first year of Wynn's term hasn't quite been a war, there are plenty of signs and whispers of an uneasy peace between the manager and the mayor, a working relationship that could be a lot better than it is – and a dynamic in which, when push comes to shove, it's the mayor that ends up backpedaling. Though Wynn has defenders who feel Futrell has tried to isolate him, far more stakeholders think the mayor has done a plenty good job isolating himself, as he's oscillated awkwardly between passive and aggressive. "Toby is too strong and Will too weak," says one City Hall watcher. "There has to be a healthy give and take, and despite his having the best intentions, the mayor doesn't do give-and-take very well. He's taken too many cheap shots at Toby."

But Futrell herself disputes this. "My relationship with Kirk was different than my relationship with Gus [Garcia], which was different than my relationship with Will, but they all three worked." Again, she thinks the economic climate is the key to the story, explaining not only the dynamics within City Hall but the lens through which City Hall is viewed. "In a downturn, we're just looking for the least bad [fiscal] choices, so it does create a different interaction. Hard times change everything – expectations, image, energy, the tone of the conversation in the entire community. The dialogue can be meaner and more bitter. But you also find a different kind of commitment and camaraderie.

"Certainly, my vision of being in this job was not what it's been," says Futrell. "You think of all the things you can do, the special projects and initiatives, after a decadelong boom where the sky was the limit and revenue flowed ... and the timing was different. The nature of the job was different. So ... I think we've done an unglamorous job well, if you can ever talk about this kind of a job as being something done well."

Weak Mayor or Mayor Weak?

For Wynn, the last year has likewise been a learning experience, and he's not afraid to pan his own performance. "It's been very humbling and frustrating," he says. "I've made some big mistakes. There's such a glaring disconnect between the direct accountability to the public who elects you, and the direct authority to do anything about what you're being held accountable for. Most of our citizens think I have far-reaching administrative authority. I have absolutely none."

Indeed, even for a council-manager system, Austin keeps its mayors on a tight leash. All seven council members are elected citywide, and there's no pride of place for the mayor; he gets to run meetings, sign proclamations, and has a bigger office, and that's about it. Yet the mayor is still the name above the title; citizens and stakeholders – even inside City Hall – expect Austin's mayors to be, well, big-city mayors, actors in a leading role, and since none of the tools required come with the office, its occupants have to supply their own. "Technically, I can do nothing unilaterally," says Wynn – a lesson learned from experience as well as from reading the City Charter. Not that he's ready to give up council-manager government (despite having some wistful longing for a mayoral line-item budget veto). "There are clear positives in the system," he says, "one obvious one being that it can shield the city manager and staff from those less productive political winds that tend to blow around here."

The limitations of the role didn't seem to bother Kirk Watson or Gus Garcia very much, but they had star quality – expressed as brio in Watson's case and gravitas in Garcia's – that Wynn simply doesn't, by his own admission. "Will has the name, the looks, and the money to be a potentially powerful elected official. He has proven that he 'gets' the issues," says community activist Robin Rather, who endorsed Wynn for mayor in 2003 in lieu of running for the job herself.* (Few people expect Rather to be so accommodating in 2006.) "How long it takes him to live up to his potential is still an open question."

It's a question Wynn has had to ask himself. "I've always prided myself on an analytical and logical approach to decisions and problems," Wynn says. "As a council member, I've realized since, I had the luxury of simply sitting back and casting that vote, and at times being seen as contrarian. As mayor, I've learned that I've lost that luxury.

"Even internally," Wynn continues, "I've had to recognize there are personalities and emotions involved in council decisions that I have to respond to. And that doesn't come naturally to me. I have learned that at least for me to be successful, I can't use this office as a 'bully pulpit' at all. I have to recognize the different personalities and emotions and perspectives that have to be ... massaged to produce action."

Even Wynn's most disappointed fans recognize that he's more often than not right on the issues, and they see him finding his rhythm with Futrell, his council colleagues, and the zeitgeist. And Wynn has had to realize that it will be a long time before citizens stop expecting more than the mayor is inherently equipped to deliver – because they got it from his predecessors. "I think Kirk Watson is a remarkable guy, and he was the perfect mayor for Austin for all that was happening then in this city. Now, I can't control the dynamics that have made City Hall a place where we get to announce bad news, and look to the city manager to do the heavy lifting, just as Kirk couldn't control the dynamics of the years he was mayor of this city. But people have high expectations of the mayor because of Kirk, and I deal with the humbling frustration of people's dashed expectations."

The Usual Suspects
Illustration By Doug Potter

He's especially conscious of being watched from the center – by his constituents in the big-business community who "were dreamily remembering the late 1990s, and thought somehow my election would bring those dynamics back," he says. "I look at my role as not trying to satisfy this nostalgic thinking, but in fact working closely with the Chamber of Commerce (where Kirk Watson is the chair-elect) and employers to show them the mayor agrees that job creation is the task at hand." (There's a sign on the inside of the mayor's office door: "How many jobs did we help Austin create today?") "I hope they recognize the different role that I can play. But with revenues falling, there aren't going to be big grand initiatives. Those days aren't coming back for a long, long time. Simply rebuilding what we've lost could very well take us through the end of a second term."

Who's in Charge?

Wynn would probably also have it easier, in the expectations game, if he had a more traditional City Council. After all, Bruce Todd wasn't exactly a natural-born leader, but he survived two terms by playing both ends of a bitterly polarized council against the middle. The current City Council is neither engaged in tribal warfare – the kind that defined City Hall politics for nearly 25 years – nor united behind an unstoppable agenda as was Watson's Green Machine.

So what is it instead?

Mike Sheffield, the president of the Austin Police Association – a prominent supporting player in the last year's City Hall saga – says "as issues come and go, consensus and coalition forms on that issue, but there's never any sign of a group that's marching together and in step. Some people would say that's good government, that everyone's voting their conscience on each and every issue. But it can also create political gridlock, where you don't deal with the difficult issues because you can't build any kind of consensus. If you don't know the votes are there, you're not going to do anything."

Sheffield describes the current cast as "more like a 2-2-2-1 council, and people are looking to see what will be the unifying issues. I'm pretty pleased with them" – they did, after all, approve the APA's latest meet-and-confer contract 7-0 – "though I'm sure that's not a view shared by everybody. But people are looking for more consensus, more clear direction from the council. This council is more apt to surprise people."

Says Robin Rather, "Even in a downturn, people – and I'm talking about regular citizens here – need to see a plan, to be inspired, to feel understood and taken care of, and they need to know how they personally can help make the city stronger. They don't need the kind of 'pork' that we got used to during the boom times. To have a great council, you have to have a certain degree of cohesiveness; specific, bold goals that are clear as day; at least one forceful, charismatic communicator; and major backbone. The jury is still out on whether this council will get there." (Interestingly, Kirk Watson makes almost the exact same points about the qualities of a good council, but he says the current one, "from an outsider's perspective, seems to be working well.")

From Wynn's swearing-in in the middle of last June – that is, a year ago – there were, by our reading of the approved minutes, 99 non-unanimous council votes. In the 6-1 decisions (or 5-1 with a member absent or off the dais), Jackie Goodman and Danny Thomas were most often on the bottom end. (Betty Dunkerley, on the other hand, has never once been the lone losing vote.) On the 5-2 and 4-3 votes, though, Slusher and Raul Alvarez were the most common losers. Overall, Slusher, Thomas, Alvarez, and Goodman have all lost twice as often as have the other three. (Wynn's strikeout rate is higher than Dunkerley's or Brewster McCracken's, due to his budget protest votes.) But obviously, the foursome doesn't form a unified front (the "STAG" Coalition?) or else they'd be on the winning side more often, as Slusher and Goodman were when they joined the 4-3 Todd councils.

So what has emerged is more like a 2-3-2 council, with Goodman/Alvarez and Dunkerley/McCracken at the poles, and Slusher and Thomas joining Wynn in the uncertain middle. "I think there's been a political realignment going on all over the city," Slusher says, "and it's not particularly clear when it's going to settle into another lasting pattern. But this council's not bitterly divided on core issues, and as far as civility and the range of disagreement goes, it's much narrower. It's much more civil than the Todd Council was."

But it is also a council that is nearing the end of its run. Each of the STAGs is term-limited, and while those limits have been busted before, Goodman (a lame duck, but "a free and independent duck," she says) says she has no intention of making that lightning strike twice. Enough people assume that Slusher will step down as well for a roster of potential candidates to be shaping up for his seat, though he has been deliberately silent about future plans.

Both Goodman and Slusher have had mayoral aspirations before, and Thomas reportedly does now, and McCracken may get the bug soon enough. So the prospect of a new election cycle will continue to burble under the dais. "This is a town with lots of smart, talented, ambitious people and few chances for them to express that ambition through electoral politics," says one City Hall watcher. "There aren't that many seats on the dais. So those ambitions get expressed in other ways, and not all of them are pretty."

Shrinking Horizons

Perhaps the best that can be said of the last year is that, although the downturn has presented few opportunities for greatness, it has likewise offered little chance for mischief. All things considered, a smoking ordinance, a USA PATRIOT Act resolution, a few individual zoning cases, and the fate of the Austin Music Network will not mean much in the historical record. (Hopefully, the positive things – the city's clean-energy initiatives and efforts to help small business, for example – will mean more.) But that script is about to change, and how. In the upcoming year, the council has little choice but to take its purported unity on core issues to the next level.

There's transportation, of course, both the toll-road plan up for approval Monday night and the rail-transit plan expected to go to voters in November, both of which would require the city to make some serious policy choices – on its own regarding land use, and as a regional voice within Capital Metro and the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization. "Sometimes, 'showing leadership' means making a lot of people mad," Slusher says. (He and Danny Thomas hold board seats both at Capital Metro and at CAMPO, where they're joined by Wynn and McCracken.) "And I don't see how we're going to make transportation decisions ... without making a lot of people angry. But we have to look beyond the immediate anger on this issue." Wynn says the city delegation will do its level best at CAMPO to "elevate" the toll-road plan "into something that really meets the needs of a broad range of constituents."

Then there's the economy. "Job creation is still Job One," Wynn says, recycling a campaign mantra. "It's crucial to rebuilding the city's revenue stream." On this, after some bumps in the road with deals like the Domain, both the council and city staff seem to have found a groove, though it may not be where citizens want to be groovin' – last week, both the Home Depot and Samsung deals passed on consent. "'Economic development' used to have more baggage attached to it," Wynn continues. "But as long as we continue our efforts to support both small and large businesses, and direct incentives toward hiring our own citizens, we should continue to have consensus."

But is there enough urgency behind that consensus? "By far the biggest issue is how Austin reshapes its economy," says Robin Rather. "This council and mayor have had a hard time getting any traction on innovative policy initiatives for job creation purposes."

The city has gotten more traction in the thorny world of growth management – keeping Austin's fair share of the regional market, building up Downtown and the overall tax base, conquering new frontiers like Robinson Ranch, bringing urban density to places like Mueller and West Campus. Slusher notes that, in those last two cases, the council provided "leadership" by getting out of the way. "We told people they needed to work [the infill issue] out or we'd have more and more cases like the Villas on Guadalupe," he says. "And I'm really impressed with what those neighbors came up with. As with Mueller. Is that council leadership or community leadership? I don't know, but it works."

Meanwhile, City Hall still needs to cut "only" $19 million from next year's budget: "We're just going to have to suck it up," says Slusher. "That's the first challenge, and it's a serious one. It may not be easy." Then – as the economy slowly, slowly rebounds – figure out how to start rebuilding with what little new money comes in. "What do we do with our first $1 million in new sales tax money?" Futrell asks. "Increase street maintenance? Or reopen the branch libraries one day a week? That's when I think you're going to see the policy dialogue and the council dynamics change. There will be choices."

But not many choices; as Kirk Watson notes, "I think all local governments are moving into a serious situation of sustained budget challenges. I don't think local government, in the foreseeable future, is going to ever enjoy having more money than it feels like it needs to balance the budget." He cites both fundamental shifts in the economy – from manufacturing to services, which are harder to tax – and the downward shirking of public-sector costs from the states and the feds to the localities. Most other big issues, he says, were already in play when he was mayor, "though the pace of transition is speeding up." But this is new, and it may be permanent. "It's going to require a fundamental shift in how local government works" – both internally, through its budget process, and as a regional player, cooperating instead of competing with the neighbors.

All extremely tough roles for a City Hall cast of actors that already is struggling with its script. Naturally, most of the stars don't think the next installment is bound to be a flop. But they still can't guarantee how it's going to end. "There are things I'm proud of that we've accomplished, and I'm upbeat about the chances for the next 12 months," says Will Wynn. "But I have resigned myself to the fact that on the things I've enjoyed working on, and I think have been successful, it will be a long time before we'll see a payoff. Our future citizens and leaders will reap the rewards." end story

*Oops! The following correction ran in our July 23, 2004 issue: In our feature "The Usual Suspects" (News, July 9), we incorrectly reported that activist Robin Rather had endorsed Mayor Will Wynn in his 2003 campaign. In fact, while Rather did choose not to run against Wynn, she endorsed no candidate in the race. We regret the error.

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