Beside the Point

Seizing the Reins

Wait for one measure to limit the power of the city manager, and three come along at once. While the massed forces for and against the relocation of the Town Lake Animal Center were readying their banners for last Thurs­day's City Council meeting (see "Run for Shelter"), there was a minor but significant power shift at City Hall. Council members were quietly enacting proposals to set subtle new limits of power, and standards of accountability, on Toby Futrell and her inevitable replacement.

Deep in the consent agenda, in isolation items 58, 59, and 60 looked simple enough. Item 58, sponsored by Council Member Mike Martinez and co-sponsored by Lee Leffingwell, was a resolution instructing the city manager to provide written monthly reporting of expenditures within her authorization. The manager does not need coun­cil approval for expenditures less than $50,000, but this would mean she would have to explain any item more than $5,000. In addition, there would be quarterly reports on all vacant full-time employee positions and any expenditures from the budget stabilization reserve. "It takes a push of a button to generate that information," said Leffingwell. "It just needs to be compiled and sent to the offices."

Martinez returned the sponsorship favor for Leffingwell by co-sponsoring his two management-curbing items, both proposing charter amendments for next May's ballot. Item 59 would pave the way to shift the power to appoint the city attorney from the city manager to the council. Item 60, however, was a little more subtle. Another charter-revision proposal, this would change the rules governing the city auditor, by establishing a five-year term limit for the post and requiring a six-vote supermajority to remove an auditor (rather than the current simple majority). "The council already has power over the auditor, although the city manager does propose the budget for them," said Leffingwell. "This proposal insulates the auditor from both manager and council, which I think is a good place for someone who does audits to be."

The council had studied other cities that elect independent auditors but rejected that idea as giving the office too much independence. For Leffingwell, this proposal strikes a suitable balance. "We want to try, as far as we can, to insulate the city auditor from any kind of political considerations," he said.

On Thursday, 58 and 60 passed on consent, without comment. However, Leffingwell pulled the city attorney proposal, postponing it to the Nov. 8 council meeting while acknowledging that its future is doubtful. "In talking to my colleagues, there are still a lot of questions to be explored, and I want their concerns to be taken into consideration when we finally come to address it," he said. But even if the resolution fails in November, the message has been delivered to the city manager's office: When it comes to financial oversight, the books will be more open to the council.


In the temporary absence of Wells Dun­bar, abroad for a couple of weeks on mysterious vacationary errands, Richard Whitta­ker has graciously stepped into the role of BTP. Continue to send tips, rumors, outrages, and bons mots to wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Council, Toby Futrell, Mike Martinez, Lee Leffingwell

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