Beside the Point

Six Down, Two to Go

As she made the motion naming Austin's city manager finalists last Thursday, Mayor Pro Tem Betty Dunkerley's mic flickered on and off. Beside the Point's initial reaction – and I doubt I was alone – was panic at having missed something. That's because only two finalists were named: San Antonio Deputy City Manager Jelynne Burley and Fort Worth Assistant City Manager Marc Ott. Surely one of those "internal" candidates – say, ACM Laura Huffman – had been mentioned, and I just didn't hear it.

But no. Last week, the City Council named two finalists – both hailing from outside Austin – for the city's top management position. Aside from ensuring that the next manager will be an African-American – a historic first – the decision also marks the first official break from the existing power structure at City Hall in recent memory. That's something the community activists and neighborhood advocates complaining about the search might want to laud (if not the Statesman, which has abruptly contorted the CM search into a council-bludgeoning, budget-cinching cudgel). Compared to the ascension of managers past, the current process has been pure sunshine and transparency. For those who may not remember: Toby Futrell was basically appointed by outgoing CM and mentor Jesus Garza; Garza arose as an executive fiat from ... shudder ... former Mayor Bruce Todd.

That's not to say there's no room for improvement. By waiting too long to begin – out of deference to Futrell, more than anything else – Mayor Will Wynn shoehorned the selection process into a tighter timeline. And Tuesday's hastily arranged "meet-and-greet" public reception for Burley and Ott has been accurately derided as "too little, too late" for those wanting more input on the process.

Should that process remain open for discussion? As the council unanimously resounded (well, prior to Better Austin Today's noisy calls for time and public input, at least), this is the council's decision to make. No, it hasn't mirrored the selection of Art Acevedo – but a primary goal in that search was to regain the public's trust after a series of horrific police incidents. The city manager's primary official task is to execute the will of the council faithfully.

I have to admit that my own views have softened during the progress of the search. BTP was intent on pushing the Acevedo meme – that this hire should mirror the public vetting the chief received. But frankly, that was largely in response to the persistent whispering campaign of prominent developers, attorneys, and past and present elected officials reportedly lobbying council members and others on Huffman's behalf. The deference to development and to business as usual was personified in developer Terry Mitchell's quote to the Statesman that probably did Huffman no favors: "She's very unassuming in saying, 'How can we work together to accomplish this?'" Also, as its crybaby petulance has since shown, the Statesman hoped to influence the CM selection more directly had the process been made more "public" – and thereby more malleable to publicity.

Sometimes – not always, but sometimes – you have to trust your public officials. And yes, BTP is as shocked as you are to hear that coming out of his own mouth. Now, as for those finalists ...


Jelynne Burley

Jelynne Burley: “The role of the city manager is to support the mayor and council, understand their policies and initiatives, and implement those goals and objectives of the council. As a professional public administrator, it is my duty to raise those policy issues for the mayor’s and council’s consideration, those issues that are affecting the city either from its education standpoint, its neighborhoods, development, environmental policy.”
Jelynne Burley: “The role of the city manager is to support the mayor and council, understand their policies and initiatives, and implement those goals and objectives of the council. As a professional public administrator, it is my duty to raise those policy issues for the mayor’s and council’s consideration, those issues that are affecting the city either from its education standpoint, its neighborhoods, development, environmental policy.” (Photo by Jana Birchum)

This isn't the first time Burley and Ott have been in the running together. Late last year, both were finalists for Fort Worth's city manager position: Ott as an internal candidate as a Fort Worth assistant city manager, Burley from her position as San Antonio's deputy city manager. (Ironically, the Fort Worth CM selection, while eventually successful, featured a bitterly divided council; that precedent served as a cautionary tale for Austin officials wary of overboard public deliberation and debate.) Now the two face off again.

Burley earned her bachelor's degree in political science from Baton Rouge's Southern University in 1982 and a master's degree from Trinity University in San Antonio, the city she's worked for since 1984. Until 1990, she worked in housing, budget, and capital-improvement projects. It prepared her for three years in the Office of Dome Development – not the Buckminster Fuller geodesic variety, but overseeing design, budgeting, and coordination for construction of the Alamodome. She continued to work on budgeting and construction projects until 2002, when she was named assistant city manager. In that position, she focused on housing, development, and revitalization. In 2006, she was promoted to deputy city manager, where she oversees planning and development, public works, economic development, and more; a 2006 FBI probe of the city's urban renewal agency, plus its subsequent defunding and folding into the city bureaucracy, likely created plenty of headaches for Burley.


Marc Ott

Marc Ott: The elected officials are in fact the policymakers. And from my standpoint as the city manager, my job is, to the best of my ability and partnership with staff, carry out their policies. ... Beyond that, I would want to create an environment inside City Hall, with respect to the employees, that encourages their greatest potential – that they bring that to work every day and work to do their best in all things, at all times, when it comes to the public interest.
Marc Ott: "The elected officials are in fact the policymakers. And from my standpoint as the city manager, my job is, to the best of my ability and partnership with staff, carry out their policies. ... Beyond that, I would want to create an environment inside City Hall, with respect to the employees, that encourages their greatest potential – that they bring that to work every day and work to do their best in all things, at all times, when it comes to the public interest." (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Prior to his current position in Fort Worth, Ott's done most of his work in the Great Lakes State. He earned his undergrad degree (management, focus on economics) and master's (public administration) from Michigan's Oakland University before attending a program for government executives at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. Starting in 1982, he worked in city managers' offices in Jackson and Grand Rapids before moving to Kalamazoo in 1990.

In Kalamazoo, he quickly rose from assistant CM to city manager in three years, overseeing nearly 1,000 employees and representing the city in collective bargaining. His tenure there ended turbulently in 1997, with the city commission asking for his resignation due to what are described as "communication problems." (In fairness, the conflict appears to have been largely a consequence of the political turnover in a new administration.) Controversy continued to trail Ott, with newspapers making hay over his $141,100 severance package and his apparent failure to register a handgun (which was determined an oversight). After a yearlong hiatus, followed by a four-year stint as Rochester Hills' city administrator, Ott came to Fort Worth as an assistant city manager, where he's presided over capital-improvement-plan businesses like the water and wastewater utility, transportation, public works, engineering, aviation, and more.


The Other Shoe

The main question: Will we have a new city manager by the time you read this? Thursday council meetings haven't meshed well recently with BTP's weekly publication schedule. Follow­ing the public reception Tuesday, and final interviews with the council Wednesday, the council is scheduled to announce its selection today, Thursday, Jan. 17 – although they've reserved the right to take more time. Keep abreast of late-breaking news at austinchronicle.com/newsdesk.


(Still Further) Beside the Point

Thought last week's City Council meeting was lackluster? Compared to the meager scraps of municipal governance today, it's enough to make last week's meeting – featuring passage of Brewster McCracken's Austin Parking Enterprise – look like an assembly atop the acropolis. Aside from the city manager will-they-won't-they, the other items to watch are in zoning: neighborhood-disputed design and compatibility standards for the 12th Street Neighbor-hood Conservation Combining District and the geographically related Eastside McMansion reduced-lot-size skirmish, starring none other than Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson.

Hey Hollywood – can we pin this uproar on Jessica Simpson, too? – Wells Dunbar

E-mail any council interceptions to wdunbar@austinchronicle.com.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

City Councilcity manager, city manager search, City Council, Will Wynn, Jelynne Burley, Marc Ott

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