The Austin Chronicle

Beside the Point

Internal Pleading

By Wells Dunbar, November 23, 2007, News

By now it's carved in granite tablets, conventional wisdom from the Statesman's Bat Cave to the Chron's executive washroom, that the hiring of Police Chief Art Acevedo set a gold standard for a deliberate, transparent hiring process. But did it?

After months of looking, remember who was chosen to lead the water utility, trumpeted so proudly in a Friday afternoon press dump? Us neither. Who'll replace departing Parks & Rec Director Warren Struss – truly critical in a town as full of grass-lovers as Austin? And what the hell's holding the Convention Center together nowadays – a couple of coffee carts and Rudy Garza? Point is, the process that netted us Acevedo – held up as exemplary for all future "critical hires" – is looking more like a happy accident. And so last week, Mayor Will Wynn detailed the timeline for hiring Austin's next city manager. "What this memo answers, specifically, is the timing of the decision points," Wynn says. Even more specifically: It's a little tight.

The first thing council-watchers will notice is the process has been pushed back a few weeks, to the beginning of next year. Wynn said a 2007 decision would have required council to convene over the holidays, which the image-conscious city thinks might give the wrong appearance. "Really, it's less about us working through the holiday season than the perception – 'Hey, wait a minute – nobody's in town.'" So Jan. 3 or 4, like some after-the-fact Santa, search firm Arcus delivers "a big, fat three-ring binder" of potential candidates to council. And that's where the trouble starts.

From this point, council will consider separate candidate tracks – one for the "external" candidates Arcus found and another for the "internal" candidates already working for the city. The memo describes narrowing external candidates "to a manageable number of the most superior candidates (perhaps as few as three) for the first round of face-to-face interviews" while looking "forward to as many as three highly-qualified current City employees applying." So while the best of the external candidates may be limited to as few as three, all three rumored internal candidates (assistant city managers Laura Huffman and Rudy Garza and Austin Energy General Manager Juan Garza) advance up the bracket by default. "We wanna try to answer that question right off the bat, let our internal candidates know we like them, we value them, and they are all going to have a very fair shot," Wynn says. But is that too fair by far?

Also problematic for external applicants is the condensed nature of the search. After council makes its semifinal picks around Jan. 3, face-to-face interviews commence Jan. 8 – giving outsiders less than a week to arrange a visit. Assuming the top management talent that Arcus seeks to attract is already employed, this might make for some scheduling difficulties. (Also, at this point, the heretofore confidential applicants will become public knowledge – another complication that might make someone currently employed elsewhere [Vancouver, Gotham City, Atlantis] reconsider whether Austin's worth the time and trouble, i.e., local backlash.) Wynn says the schedule allows for "a little bit of open-field running," which is not discouraged; he anticipates "really serious candidates will likely be coming to town a time or two, probably quietly." After Jan. 9, it's down to two finalists. They'll be interviewed again Jan. 16; the city manager will then be announced the next day at council. (Seriously, don't dog-catcher candidates get more than two interviews?)

Internally, hot buzz of the machinery moving to support Huffman has made her the rumored front-runner. Sources (speaking only on background) have recounted the heavy-hitters lobbying on her behalf: state officials, prominent attorneys and power brokers, vaunted members of the permanent ruling political class who have benefited from the current structure at City Hall – and would presumably continue to flourish under Huffman. Another more hyperbolic take has it that Huffman's already a done deal, and Arcus is a convenient cover. Yet as Wynn noted to BTP, the search has done as much to raise Arcus' profile as it has anyone else's. For them to be seen as slackly rubber-stamping the top management position in one of the nation's most high-profile cities wouldn't be helpful – hence intimations of friction between the company and the mayor on how to proceed.

Ultimately, Wynn says giving internal candidates their own initial inside track should diminish campaigning, assuring staffers they'll "get the same structured one-on-one face time with the decision-making body, as will the chosen external candidates. ... For instance, if we were to say [we'll take] one internal, three external, just arbitrarily – well, guess what happens up on the third floor [city manager's offices] for the next six weeks?"

But would we rather brook a rough six weeks or six years of more-of-the-same management?

Drop a turkey-time line to BTP at [email protected].

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