The Austin Chronicle

Point Austin: Futrell's Twilight

As the city manager looks homeward, odd old business erupts

By Michael King, July 13, 2007, News

"I am not leaving this year."

So I was told by City Manager Toby Futrell early last week, in response to persistent buzz concerning her possibly pending retirement, after she had raised the subject herself earlier this year. Following her most recent City Council review (glowing, with a sizable raise), she noted that she was entering her 30th year of city employment and sixth year as city manager. "I had always said six to eight years is a good run in this job," she told me again last week, "and after your 25th year, under the city system, you're eligible for a significant portion of your salary in an annuity. That means I'm working 100 to 120 hours a week for 30 to 40 percent of my actual salary." But, she went on, she now regrets having spoken aloud about the pending transition, because it's all anybody asks her about. "This is my mistake for ever having talked about this. Rumors are everywhere," she said. "I didn't think there were a lot of lessons left to learn after 30 years, but that's one."

Now there are at least a couple more.

We had that conversation several days before Tony Plohetski's Saturday Statesman story ("Futrell says role in hiring was proper") recounting the 2002 hiring by Austin Energy of Futrell's "brother-in-law by marriage," Kurt Stogdill, under what appear to have been at least unusual circumstances – and perhaps undue influence from then-Assistant City Manager Futrell. (The Statesman posted online Futrell's lengthy explanation of her actions but was having none of it for the paper edition.) The editors followed with a long and strenuous Tuesday editorial calling for City Council "scrutiny" of Futrell's 2002 actions – and a whole list of other sins only vaguely related to the main charge.

Suggesting the council consider "it's time to speed her departure," the daily particularly blasted the city manager not for the "passing lapse" of hiring a relative five years ago but for what it called her current "did nothing wrong" attitude: "Futrell displays an alarmingly cavalier attitude toward a legitimate area of inquiry." In an e-mail, Futrell told me it was this claim – from editors who had not spoken to her – that especially perplexed her. "There is nothing cavalier about how I feel. I feel like a truck ran over me," Futrell wrote. "I'm reaching back to piece together what happened in late 2001 and early 2002 and I clearly realize I would not handle it the same way today – almost six years later."

Department of Amplification

Neither Futrell nor the Statesman come out looking great in this exchange. The daily editors appear determined to pump hot air into a dated, insider job referral for an employee even the paper concedes has worked out well. And Futrell's responses, rather than being "cavalier," exhibit her characteristic and often maddening determination to explain absolutely everything, rather than simply saying what she does above: Although the hiring did not violate city policy, it was badly handled, and she wouldn't do it again.

Indeed, more troubling than the hiring itself is the e-mail and memory trail – Futrell says she does not dispute her staff's recollections, although they differ from her own – that city and AE staffers felt pressured, Plohetski reports, to get the hiring done pronto.

Futrell believes this conflict in memories is caused in part by the inevitably "amplified voice" of a boss when heard by subordinates, then reverberating down the line. "I have also painfully learned that my voice and even my reactions are amplified as the city manager," she says. "I have found that a request to 'consider something' comes back to me, after being filtered through the organization, as I 'demanded something.' I have found that if I show frustration, it is interpreted as anger. And this 'amplified voice' is another reason I have grown even more careful in my requests of departments." Maybe – but it also rhymes with very persistent buzz from city employees that Futrell's publicly ebullient image can quickly drop away in private, making them fear personal or institutional retaliation if they get out of line. Based only on the available evidence, it seems likely that Futrell heard her own voice as amplified as well – and a casual bureaucratic arm-twisting has come back to haunt her, when some sore-armed somebody decided to call a reporter.

I pointed out that in the case of Bill Moriarty, former director of the Clean Water Program who was forced out because of an apparent conflict-of-interest concerning his companion (a subcontractor on the project but whom he did not hire), Futrell had strongly emphasized the "perception" of a conflict as nearly as damaging as outright corruption. She rejected out-of-hand that comparison to the current situation, saying that a "million dollar contract to a member of your household is simply not the same thing."

Seasons Change

A week ago Futrell was being congratulated for being named Administrator of the Year by the Texas City Management Association, in recognition of her "long and distinguished career in public service that has made a positive impact on the greater Austin area" (which is certainly undeniable). I was quickly reminded of that award by Betty Dunkerley, when I tracked down as many council members (officially on vacation) as I could to get their reactions to the Statesman stories, as well as their larger speculation on how urgent their consideration of CM succession planning is now that Futrell has made it clear, as she put it to me, that her "horizon is coming."

Dunkerley was quickest to dismiss the hiring flap as "a nothing story," and (like Futrell) every member was quick to point out that "that's not how we do it now." Brewster McCracken says the hiring referral process has been "completely depoliticized," and city agencies receive either a request for a "courtesy interview" (for qualified candidates) or an "FYI only" note. Although they said they take the conflict-of-interest issue very seriously, in general the members were quick instead to praise Futrell for her work ethic and her lifelong contributions to the city ("a Cinderella story in itself," said McCracken) and to ask observers to maintain the larger perspective. "Sure, the appearances don't look great," said Will Wynn, "but I would be very surprised if this leaves any blemish in any way on Toby's remarkable record and series of accomplishments. We'll continue to work to see that we have good rules and that we all follow them." No one seemed to believe there needs to be a full-blown investigation.

The members also said they have reached an informal consensus that they'll soon need to get moving on a national search for Futrell's successor, pointing to the successful model of Futrell's own recruitment of new Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo. "That doesn't mean we won't have topflight in-house candidates," said Mike Martinez. "We've got really great assistant city managers. But Austin will be attractive to excellent candidates from across the country, and we need to look at all of them." Asked about the general timing of the search, members said it could take a year to find the right person, but Dunkerley pointed to a natural limit of next spring's election. "You don't want it to be a campaign issue if you can avoid it, and in particular I would like to get it done before I'm gone, in June of 2008." (Dunkerley is term-limited.)

Everyone says they'd strongly prefer that Futrell stays in her position until a successor is appointed, both for continuity's sake and because they believe she's doing a good job. "When people complained about her raise," said Lee Leffingwell, "I just said, 'I'm glad we're not paying her by the hour.'" Futrell emphasizes that the process of the selection and choice of her successor, local or national, are not her jobs. "That decision, when it happens, is going to be a council policy decision. It won't involve me," she said last week. "It's whatever the council is comfortable with, and my job is to make sure they've got good options. And I think they've got that now." end story

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