Point Austin: The Process, Part II

What we told you last week? That was last week.

City manager candidates Marc Ott and  Jelynne Burley
City manager candidates Marc Ott and Jelynne Burley (Photo by Jana Birchum)

By the time you read this, Austin will presumably have a new city manager – either San Antonio's Jelynne Burley or Fort Worth's Marc Ott. Although we persistently and politely request that nobody do anything when the Chronicle is on press deadline, the whole town continues to ignore us.

At City Hall, however, they don't ignore our august counterparts at the Austin American-Statesman. Last week, we were told by council members, and duly reported, there were going to be no city manager public forums; this week (Tuesday night) there was a city manager public forum. Having first vowed to be the sole arbiters of their primary employee, the council apparently flinched under the twin attacks of the Statesman editorial board and the nascent Better Austin Today Political Action Committee and accordingly trotted out the finalists for a Q&A with the citizens. (For a brief report, see "Beside the Point.") BATPAC demanded that this hopelessly corrupt and feckless city government reprise the amazingly fine job it had done (no doubt inadvertently) in hiring Austin Police Department Chief Art Acevedo, and the Statesman thundered incoherently that a public hearing is necessary to make certain that the next city manager understands that the absolutely most important issue facing the city is cutting the public safety budget.

Just doing their parts to Keep Austin Weird.

I've got no particular beef with a floor show for the two finalists, but I can't refrain from pointing out that the mayor and his colleagues initially made it quite clear that they had no intention of turning the CM hire into a "popularity contest." The first to crater was Jennifer Kim, who assured me two weeks ago that hearings would unnecessarily "politicize" the job – and then called a few days later to say she had pushed successfully for finalist hearings because "we really need to hear from the public." Why the abrupt turnaround? "This is the first time I've done this," Kim responded, "and I want to make certain we get it right." Asked if her change of heart had anything to do with the BATPAC press conference of the previous day (not to mention the Responsible Growth for Northcross outrage still roiling the political winds), Kim said, "I always listen to what the public has to say."

As a group, the council members apparently decided that a two-candidate forum would not inevitably upset their hiring timeline or their authority, so the rest of us were treated to a Palmer Events Center hoedown and a few TV-news sound bites. "If the candidates are not happy with that kind of process," declared Kim, "they probably are not the right fit for Austin." And if the nonpolitical city manager job just became Politics for a Day, as Usual – well, that's just too bad.

Ms. Burley and Mr. Ott, welcome to Austin.

Food for Thought

Amid all that hoopla last week, I asked a few prospective council candidates for their thoughts on city managers, since one or two of them might be stepping onto the dais come June. I've got room for just a few nuggets:

Randi Shade (Place 3): "While some level of tension between a council and a manager is inevitable, even healthy, there's been too much tension in recent years. The council needs to select a strong leader who yet works at the direction of council: They set policy; he or she executes."

Cid Galindo (Place 4): "The city is going to grow; we need someone familiar with land use and transportation, who can help us determine how we're going to manage that growth and guide that growth where we want it. ... It boils down to skill sets and personalities: someone who can do the job but who will also be able to work with the council."

Laura Morrison (Place 4): "I understand the council's desire to make it clear that the city manager works for them, but from a broader perspective, the council works for the citizens. ... Whoever they hire, that person needs to be a dynamic leader of thousands of employees and someone who embraces Austin's tradition of vibrant public participation."

Robin Cravey (Place 4): "There are several things I would look for: a clear understanding of the relationship with council; a demonstrated commitment to open government; a dedication to good staffing; a belief in forward-thinking innovation; high ethical standards; a generalist, preferably with a liberal arts background; and someone who believes in government as the instrument of the public and the promoter of the general welfare."

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city councilcity manager, City Council, Jennifer Kim, Jelynne Burley, Marc Ott, Better Austin Today

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