The Austin Chronicle

The Insiders

Meet the three homegrown candidates to replace City Manager Toby Futrell

By Wells Dunbar, December 21, 2007, News

Mayor Will Wynn reports that immediately after the holidays, national personnel search firm Arcus will bring the City Council a "big, fat three-ring binder" stuffed with names of new city manager candidates from across the nation. Once council settles on the top external candidates – perhaps no more than three – council will release those names for public discussion.

But while we wait to see the external contenders, the three declared internal candidates – Assistant City Manager Laura Huffman, Aus­tin Energy General Manager Juan Garza, and Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza – are ready for inspection: all longtime public servants with histories, résumés, and paper trails. We recently spoke with the three insiders to get a sense of their careers, their accomplishments and failings, to try to discern what type of city manager each might be.

The Front-Runner

Regarded in some political circles as the front­-runner due to her high-profile position as well as reports of wired politicos lobbying on her behalf, Austin native Laura Huffman comes with a dense local résumé – and, many think, the institutional support of current City Manag­er Toby Futrell.

Not counting a teenage lifeguard stint at North­west Pool, Huffman's career with the city began in 1990, in the Office of the City Auditor, doing performance-based and investigative auditing. Two years later, she became an executive assistant in the city manager's office. The original Save Our Springs charter amendment had recently passed, Huffman said, and environmental and development issues took up a good amount of her time. "It was also a very interesting period in Austin history, because it was a transition between two city managers," she says. Toward the end of Huffman's time there, Jesus Garza – Futrell's mentor and predecessor – came on quickly to replace City Man­ager Camille Barnett, forced to resign amid an expensive accounting controversy at Bracken­ridge Hospital. "It all happened very quickly."

In 1994, Huffman left Austin for the smaller city hall of San Marcos, where she served eight years as assistant city manager. "One of the things I wanted to do professionally was ... understand the mechanics of local government. The easiest way to do that is work in a smaller system with fewer resources," Huffman said of her move. "It's just a more granular experience."

In May 2002 – when Futrell was named acting city manager – Huffman returned to Austin as assistant city manager, with responsibility for the public-safety departments: police, fire, EMS, courts, and the like. With September 11 fresh in the public mind, homeland security concerns were paramount. The post-9/11 recession also loomed over Huffman's lead 2003-2004 negotiation of the fire and police contracts, including the new "public safety premium" – a guaranteed 2% extra for police and fire (and now EMS employees) on top of any raise received by non-public-safety employees. (For instance, if the civilian workforce is due a 3.5% raise, public safety gets 5.5%.) The concession – though a city policy decision, not Huff­man's sole responsibility – has since been widely criticized as causing a spike in public-safety spending, on a pace eventually to exhaust the city's entire general budget.

Huffman defends the contracts as costing less at the time. "Here's one thing to keep in mind ... that contract was the first one that cost the city less money than the contract before it. ... The goal was to start ratcheting back the contracts, and that goal was achieved. They're still excessive contracts, but the point is, part of the charge was to find a way to start reducing the cost of those contracts – and at the time, the public-safety premium accomplished that goal." Police and fire contracts expire next year, with Huffman conceding that "we'll have to keep looking at ... ways to reduce costs." (The city has already made overtures toward abolishing the premium and instituting uniform, citywide cost-of-living increases.)

In 2004, Huffman moved from public safety to development and environmental services: Economic Growth and Redevelopment, Neigh­bor­hood Planning and Zoning, and Watershed Protection and Development Review. She's presided over controversial battles in Austin's new-boom growth wars, most notably the Wal-Mart at Northcross Mall controversy (following Futrell's recusal). Huffman says, "I think we have an emerging set of policies that also reflect how Austin has grown in a way that makes sense to the community that's here and that's going to be Austin-esque to the people that are coming," strategies like the Burnet Road/North Gateway plan. Asked whether the city has prioritized growth above other citizen concerns, Huffman is diplomatically vague: "Austin is a city that still struggles with the issues of growth. There's no question that we've had lots and lots of lively debates about whether or not we've hit the mark on those. And every Thursday at 4:30, we debate it at a much more detailed level. But ultimately I think those are good conversations to have. ... Austin is a city that's not afraid to have a conversation about what 'right' looks like."

Finally, asked whether her perceived closeness to incumbent Futrell is an advantage or a liability, Huffman responded simply, "I think Austin is a savvy enough city to understand the difference between two people."

The Troubleshooter

"I'm a career public servant, been in government going on 19 years, specifically in city government 16 years," says Rudy Garza, "so I've been doing it for quite a while – not half my life, but just under half my life." After a stint as an auditor with the state comptroller's office, Garza began his municipal career in the city of Corpus Christi accounting office, ascending to budget director before joining Austin as budget officer in 2000, at the start of the economic slump – the first in a series of badly timed breaks. "Everybody teases me about it – what the hell have I done to always end up with all the crappy things that happen with the city?" Garza asks. "But my style has always been very hands on, to get very involved. Maybe I stick my head in too many times and should back off, but that's not my style." Dealing with the downturn defined Garza's time in the budget office. "We ended up cutting slightly over 700 positions," he says, yet thanks to retirements and restructuring, "of those 700, it was less than a handful of people who actually lost their jobs. ... We cut positions, we weren't actually cutting people."

In 2004, Garza became assistant city manager over public safety, when Huffman moved over to development. He remembers trying to reduce traffic fatalities; in 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck, with Garza earning accolades for his role in coordinating the city's response. The period was also a turbulent time for the APD, with the police shooting of Daniel Rocha, the end of Stan Knee's tenure as chief, and other assorted controversies. It's here the conventional wisdom began that Garza's been pushed from department to department when things were about to sour.

Since becoming assistant city manager over capital improve­ment projects in 2006 (Public Works, Small and Minority Business Resources, the Austin Water Utility, Aviation, and the Convention Cen­ter), the hits have kept on coming: erroneous certification of small and minority businesses leading to the certification firm's dismissal, the murky financial and customer-survey shenanigans at the Convention Center, Water Treatment Plant No. 4's ongoing woes, and conflict-of-interest allegations in the Austin Clean Water Program.

Garza believes the revelations are healthy. "I really firmly believe – and this sounds very corny – if you can just get the truth out on the table, you can start working it out. Whether it's pleasant or unpleasant, what's the issue? Let's deal with it." He also says his capital improvement projects experience immersed him in "planning review, permitting issues, water infrastructure, talking to the community, to contractors, finding out what's going on with them. [I've gotten] very well versed in the infrastructure area." Another persistent buzz concerning Garza is the hindrance of his apparent youth – a perception the fresh-faced 41-year-old is familiar with. "I wish I was as young as people thought I was, but unfortunately I'm not. I'd love to be in my 20s or 30s, but time has served me well. I think I'm young enough that I have the capacity to learn more, and I certainly have the energy and the passion that's necessary to do the job."

The Veteran

Rudy Garza has fans – including one Juan Garza, 63-year-old Austin Energy general manager. "He's a fine, fine, fine young man," says the elder Garza. "One of my heroes." Although they share the same surname and came to Austin from service with the city of Corpus Christi, the two men are not related. "Rudy worked for [Corpus Christi] when I worked there," Garza recalls. "He was here before me, probably about a year, I would think." Yet Juan says, "I don't recall ever discussing my career moves with Rudy at all, because he was one of my employees."

Born in O'Donnell (near Lubbock), Juan Gar­za brings an interesting background. "I grew up all over the Midwest and Southwest; my parents were migrants, so we followed the crops," he says. Home is Texas, or, in Garza's eyes, "God's country." It's of a piece with the reverent language he uses to describe public service: "What brings us to work every morning is [seeing] if we can attach and focus on the greater purpose. What greater purpose can there be but to serve the community? It's what brings you back in the morning."

After an Army tour of Vietnam and earning his degree, in 1968 Garza entered public service in Evanston, Ill., staying for 12 years. In 1983, he came to Corpus Christi, becoming city manager in five short years. "My predecessor basically was asked to leave," he says. "They searched about for a successor, and they settled on me real quickly." Garza recalls complicated negotiations for basic needs taking center stage: A water shortage required state legislation and regional cooperation to procure additional rights; Garza also oversaw purchase of a landfill to meet Corpus Christi's long-term needs.

Garza was manager from 1988 to 1996. "City management is a temporary honor. It doesn't last forever. The city keeps moving, keeps changing and evolving. At some point, it's time for you to find something different. ... But city management is also hugely rewarding in terms of serving this bigger purpose." After leaving the city, Garza "knocked around" Cor­pus Christi, founded an unsuccessful power company, and serving as CEO of a children's hospital, among other pursuits.

In 2000, Garza joined Austin as director of Human Resources, at the beginning of the downturn; like Rudy, he also had to make tough personnel decisions. "Any time you cut the work­force, happy is not a good way to describe it," he says, "but we were satisfied we had accomplished the goal we had been given to accomplish." Still, Garza says, "That didn't happen as a result of anything I did. Toby Fut­rell and [former City Manager] Jesus Garza showed tremendous leadership in getting that done."

In Jan­u­ary 2002, Garza took over at Austin Energy. His time at AE hasn't been free of controversy. Earlier this year, when the Austin American-Statesman reported Futrell's placement of her brother-in-law at Austin Energy, Garza's recollection that former Austin Energy Vice President Al Lujan was pressured to make the hire cast Futrell (and the utility) in an unflattering light. Recent revelations of police fishing expeditions in Austin Energy's records have raised troubling questions about the utility's complicity in data mining (see "APD Pot-Hunters Are Data-Mining at AE," Nov. 16).

"My primary responsibility is to create an environment that draws you to work every morn­ing," Garza says. "We're here to keep the lights on for the community. We power this community; without us it can't function. When you know that greater purpose, it's easy to do even the tedious work."

Inside or Out?

Reluctant to speak more broadly concerning the city manager search, Juan Garza restricted himself to his personal history; asked for his thoughts on the process, he said, "The ultimate deciders ... are the City Council. Their collective judgment is what's best for the community." Huffman and Rudy Garza were more direct. "Are there advantages to going outside versus staying inside?" asks Huffman. "No, not by definition. I think what matters is looking at the individual, taking a hard look at past performance and how the individual produces results. ... I think you can implement change either as an internal candidate or external candidate."

Rudy Garza concurs. "I think it's somewhat unfair to assume that because an internal candidate is internal, we walk around with blinders on, and it's just the status quo. At the core, I'm a professional, and I want to serve our people. And if our people are saying we wanna see things differently, then that's what we'll do." Garza also shares Huffman's perspective on inside experience: "I don't believe that an external candidate has specific qualities that we don't. In fact, as an internal candidate, the fact is I spent the last almost eight years here; I have relationships with the community; I am familiar with a lot of the issues and concerns that they have, whereas an external candidate wouldn't have that. Doesn't mean they couldn't get there, not learn it, but I see that [as] more [of] an advantage."

It's this balancing act – distancing oneself from the current regime but not too far – that characterizes the insiders' pitch: the capacity to be a change-agent while working within the existing machinery. It's a calculation at least some council members share, indicated by May­or Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley's belief that the manager selection should not be an "election issue" in spring council campaigns. It's punctuated by Downtown buzz that the comparatively meager contract Austin signed with Arcus – $25,000 – meant the firm wouldn't expend too much energy in its search, effectively making the appointment the insiders' to lose.

Insider or outsider, Austin's next city manager will be named in less than a month, following a whirlwind interview timeline (see "The Search Timeline"). We'll have to wait to see whether the external candidates will make as much of an impact on council in two interviews as Huffman, Rudy Garza, and Juan Garza, in their combined decades of city service.  

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