Top 10 Toby Moments
Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
Is her journey ours? The evolution of Toby Futrell mirrors and personalizes Austin's transformation from stoned, sleepy slack-town to condo-shocked L.A. on training wheels. On the eve of her successor's selection, we present our "Top 10 Toby Moments" – from the barefoot, Hippie-hallowed child of lost Austin to today's corporatist city micromanager of Manhattan on the Colorado.
1) You're Right, That Does Hurt Love her or loathe her, all observers acknowledge Futrell's undeniably hands-on approach. One dramatic example of many over the years: In the early 1990s, investigating complaints about EMS transport, Futrell field-researched the problem by hurtling over speed bumps while strapped down to an ambulance gurney.
2) Toby Futrell, Pet Detective A hagiographic Statesman profile on the ascendent city manager noted that in 1992, Futrell personally and furtively surveilled the troubled animal shelter, "watching animals get gassed in large groups, climbing on the roof at night to photograph rats stealing food from the cages." If that Ace Ventura impersonation wasn't enough, "she spent Saturdays patrolling around Town Lake on a golf cart with a Parks employee, searching for a predator that was leaving swans dead on the shore."
3) Anybody Find Those Hippie Hollow Pics? If the early press on Toby sought to impart anything, it's that she was "Austin" through and through. In his Chronicle profile ("She's One of Us," June 7, 2002), Mike Clark-Madison recounted that when voters approved 1998 open-space bonds, "Futrell danced barefoot within the drum circle, under the stars, at the victory party thrown by [the Save Our Springs Alliance]."
4) Dyslexia in Plain English This year's SaveTownLake.org lawsuit, looking to stop waterfront condo encroachment, is based on explicit height limits laid out in the city's 1986 Land Development Code – limits that mysteriously vanished following a supposedly nonsubstantive 1999 "plain English" rewrite – an effort overseen by then Assistant City Manager Toby Futrell.
5) Building Point Austin Although there is credit to spread over many hands and many years – architects Antoine Predock, Juan Cotera, and Phil Reed; Mayors Watson and Wynn; her mentor/predecessor, Juan Garza – the city's distinguished and distinguishing City Hall was completed on Futrell's watch, in a swirl of post-9/11 financial headaches and determination to make the building reflect the spirit of the city. It does so, from its music-and-politics plaza to its armadillo-"stinger" tail, and when Futrell moves on, she can look back on this landmark building as one of her proudest accomplishments.
6) Who's Fouling the Springs? When the Statesman claimed in 2003 that Barton Springs was awash in toxic hydrocarbons seeping in from ancient, mysterious "coal-gas" sources, Futrell spearheaded debunking efforts, tracing the chemicals eventually to oil-based sealants on nearby parking lots – most prominently, testing the Statesman's own lot along Town Lake for the culprit chems. The council eventually passed a groundbreaking ordinance banning the sealants, which seemed to mark a turning point in the city manager's heretofore cozy relationship with the denizens of the Batcave on Town Lake.
7) Unforgivable Loan On a prime political test, the city manager turned in an embarrassing low score: unprepared. When landmark African-American nightclub Midtown Live burned down in 2005, partly as penance for police responders' boorish reaction ("Burn baby, burn"), Futrell precipitously proposed a forgivable $750,000 rebuilding loan. Following talk-radio uproar and City Council backlash (most notably from the since deferential Brewster McCracken), the offer was withdrawn. In the years since, it has reverberated into realms as disparate as the African American Quality of Life Initiative and the Las Manitas loan fracas. Final grade: incomplete.
8) Here Comes the Story of the Hurricane When Hurricane Katrina sent thousands packing to Austin, Will Wynn was the smiling public face of Austin's response, and Rudy Garza was its in-house manager – and both presented a stark contrast to the Bush administration's smirking indifference. When disaster struck, Katrina's evacuees were fortunate to have as indefatigable a planner and executor as Futrell in charge of operations, and like Calamity Jane, said to be her very best in a crisis. Now about those ordinary times ...
9) The "But Money Magazine Loves Us" Defense Toby's late-period "queen of all she surveys" imperiousness was epitomized by her response to a key May 2006 report from the city auditor. After detailed review of peer city practices, the auditor strongly recommended to City Council an update to the city's adopted vision and comprehensive plan for future growth. Futrell instantaneously killed it (citing national media accolades); the mayor and council meekly submitted to her political will. Comprehensive planning does so crimp one's wielding of personal power!
10) It's All Relative A year ago, her hidden-in-plain-sight conflict of interest with Wal-Mart (her husband does contract HVAC work for the company) cast further shadows over the already contentious Northcross controversy. In 2007, a welter of miniscandals unfolded (the Convention Center, the Austin City Store, and her "executive expenditures" stocking it, etc.). In spring, City Council gave her a break – along with raises and accolades – with the expectation she'd soon announce her retirement. She didn't until late summer – and when she did, it was partially to bump a story about the nepotistic placement of a relative at Austin Energy. As Futrell told the Austin Business Journal in 2006, "The moment I become political, get rid of me." While council was too cowed to do so, ultimately Futrell took her own advice.