Point Austin: The Process

Council says: 'We're doing the hiring'

Point Austin
Last week, it took the City Council all of half a day to select seven semifinalists for the position of Austin's new city manager, and by the time you read this, the list will have been winnowed down – via on-site council interviews – to two or three finalists. On the following page, we've provided brief summaries of the public careers of the semifinalists, which is about all you'll get in the way of advance details. Although it's been clear since last spring that incumbent City Manager Toby Futrell would be stepping down, and council members expressed the desire to have a new person selected by the end of 2007, the search itself (at least for out-of-town candidates) has begun with a lightning round, which will rapidly conclude (barring surprises) with a final selection expected next week.

There's been audible grumbling that the selection process has been insufficiently "public" and specifically that it has lacked the late-stage public forums provided for the final Austin Police Department candidates that ended in the popular choice of Chief Art Acevedo. (On Tuesday morning, the Statesman editorial board issued that complaint, oddly echoed later that day by the anti-establishment strange bedfellows assembled as the Better Austin Today Political Action Committee.) Early on, the council did seek public input concerning the prospective city manager "profile," and search firm Arcus Public held detailed discussions with roughly 50 "stakeholders" recommended by the council members, but – thus far – there are no forums.

Council members say the difference is entirely intentional. Mayor Will Wynn told me firmly, several times, "This City Council is going to hire this city manager." Jennifer Kim described her colleagues as united in wanting explicitly to depoliticize the position and to reaffirm that the city manager's central task is "to do the best job of carrying out [the council's] vision and policy." Noting that the council has taken plenty of heat for often being too deferential to the manager and staff, Mike Martinez argued, "We're damned if we do, and we're damned if we don't.

"We've been beaten over the head for not taking control of the city at the council level, for not being the governing body we need to be," Martinez continued. "This is the council's sole personnel decision. ... So I think we took ownership of that. ... We don't want to parade folks out there, make it a popularity contest or who the best actor is. We really wanted council to dig in to these guys and try to determine who we thought is the best fit to come in and lead the city."

A Level Field

The mayor also insisted, a bit testily, that all the candidates are being evaluated on a "level playing field" and that there was no "favorite" as they entered the interview stage earlier this week. He dismissed widespread rumors that the "insider" candidates have an inside lane, taking a chip shot at my high-spirited colleague Wells Dunbar for suggesting last week ("Naked City," Jan. 4) that the council might be "running away" from out-of-town candidates and thereby raising suspicion among potential applicants. (Responded Dunbar: "Since they already had their final list of applicants at that point, I think the mayor's being a little touchy.")

Nonetheless, insisted Wynn, "To a person, this council is really excited at the quality of all the candidates and is doing its absolute best to make the field as level as it can possibly be. We're excited and optimistic that such extremely well-qualified candidates have applied for the position, from within Austin and from across the country – and the entire council is very comfortable with the candidates and with the process.

"The really good news," concluded the mayor, "is that we've got a really fine group of candidates with a very wide range of different experiences and backgrounds, and all of them really want the opportunity to come and lead this great city."

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