The New M.O. at City Hall

City Manager Marc Ott on people, process, priorities ... and Austin

The New M.O. at City Hall
Photo by Will Van Overbeek

What makes Marc Ott tick? How might the new city manager's leadership change the direction of Austin? That's been a subject of keen curiosity ever since City Council named Ott to the city's top administrative post in January. Ott preferred to keep a low public profile as he got up to speed on his enormous new job: managing 12,000 city employees, 25 departments, and a budget of approximately $2.8 billion. Then in June, his name burst into the news when Ott requested the resignation of Communications Director Gene Acuña, after what was described as a series of trust-eroding performance lapses that peaked with Acuña's failure to inform Ott of the fire at the Governor's Mansion. Most recently, Austinites are scrutinizing Ott's recommended city budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1.

The city manager really runs city government. Elected officials set policy; it's the CM who implements it. In leading all of the municipality's day-to-day operations, Ott, 52, draws on a management philosophy honed over 27 years as a career city administrator. Ott came to Austin from the city of Fort Worth, where he had served since 2002 as assistant city manager for infrastructure services. There, Ott was also responsible for comprehensive strategic planning for growth. Previously, he'd steadily moved up through the ranks of city administration for the Michigan cities of Rochester Hills, Kalamazoo, Grand Rapids, and Jackson. Ott holds a bachelor's degree in management and a master's degree in public administration from Oakland University in Michigan; at Harvard University, he graduated from the Program for Senior Executives in State and Local Government at the John F. Kennedy School of Government. Ott and his wife, Pamela (a surgical nurse), have two children and recently bought a home in Circle C.

We interviewed Ott at length on July 18, the day of his six-month anniversary on the $242,000 job. What follows here are the highlights of that three-hour conversation, edited for brevity and clarity. Ott's responses to a number of additional questions can be read in the sidebar "More Q&A With Marc Ott," below.

Austin Chronicle: How has Austin surprised you?

Marc Ott: I think citizen engagement and the politics associated with that process and how issues get processed in our city have been the most surprising. I certainly realized that those things were going to be in play, to a degree greater than what I experienced in Fort Worth, simply because that's a more conservative environment. It's the level of intensity here that can take you aback sometimes, if you've not experienced it before. And the diverse perspectives that are brought to the issues are much broader here.

The positive side of that, for me, is that I've always thought citizen engagement is a good thing. For most of my career, I've been more frustrated than not about a degree of apathy I've seen. You always have the right to express yourself in our great country, but with that comes a responsibility to participate. I get frustrated when folks don't engage and don't participate and are the perpetual critics.

AC: So, Austinites do live up to our self-image as an unusually engaged citizenry?

MO: I would say absolutely yes! [Laughs] Now I may get criticized for saying this, but the other side of that is – and I'm speculating a little bit – it may be that we have spent, and do spend, too much time on process. You reach a point where the questions need to be called, and a decision needs to get made. I hope we don't get so caught up in engagement that we process a question to death and don't call the question and make a decision.

AC: What do you see as the top three strategic priorities for managing the city?

MO: One of the things at the top of our list is mobility issues. And you can't talk about mobility issues without talking about air quality – they work hand in hand. I'm not just talking about the city of Austin; certainly mobility issues must be looked at in a regional context as well. We need to look at creating a multimodal, seamless transportation system. And that needs to be tied to land use. Then there's our carbon footprint and all those things – that's all tied to the discussion on air quality.

Second, our infrastructure is an area that I think we need to focus on. I am concerned that, as a matter of fiscal policy, we find that allowing 20% or more of our streets to be in poor condition is, for some reason, acceptable. And the reality is, the percentage of streets in poor condition is greater today. Investment in infrastructure – streets, bridges, and things people are not seeing – all of those things have to do with long-term sustainability and the viability of our community.

A third priority? I would point to demand-and-supply issues, for things like the future availability of water. We need to, in a very deliberate way, develop a regional strategy to make sure that water supply is going to be sufficient for the projected growth that we anticipate.

AC: Let's talk about your management philosophy and approach. What do you bring as a leader that's distinctive?

MO: First and foremost, I think my job is to provide leadership. I've developed a point of view that I need to articulate, in such a way that you motivate people, that they get it. I believe in collaboration, participation – my style isn't autocratic at all. I believe in inviting employees to the table to contribute to conversations, regardless of what the issue is. I believe a good idea is a good idea, regardless of where it comes from. I believe it's important – it's part of my management style – to create an environment where people feel safe coming to me, bringing things to the table, and saying what they think. Even if that means they disagree with me. At the end of the day, because of that kind of engagement, the outcomes are always better than what they would otherwise be.

One of the ways you get that – again, as a leader – is through discourse, creating a sense of shared values in the organization. Because without that, you really don't have anything to build on, you don't have that basis of trust. Given that sense of shared values, I think lots of things become possible in the organization.

One of the things I said [during job interviews] to the members of council was, "If you are looking for a maintenance manager, don't hire me, because I'm not the one." I wanted them to know that I intend to unleash the employees, to take advantage of everything that they have to offer. That really goes to how you value employees. Perhaps I value them a little differently.

I think all of your life experience is relevant to our mission as a city. I may say, "Look, we want you to come over here and be part of this team, working on this issue, trying to create this new thing, trying to solve this problem." It may not have anything to do with whatever your function was, at all, in the capacity that we hired you for, because we value the whole person and understand more fully the range of gifts and talents and knowledge that you have to offer. If you think about valuing employees like that, and multiplying that times 12,000 employees in this organization, all of a sudden all kinds of things become possible. Even those things that may have seemed insurmountable – maybe are not.

AC: Are you hearing from staff that there's a difference in leadership now, a different mood in the city manager's office?

MO: Almost from the beginning, I've heard from staff that this environment is different. At the first meetings, I was surprised at the lack of input from the [assistant city managers], but that's changing. They're adjusting to me still.

AC: How openly do you believe City Hall should respond to the media?

MO: One of things I said when I came to this town is, "This is the people's business." As such, it is all about being transparent and engaging people and having them engage you back. As far as I'm concerned, there are no secrets about the people's business. On occasion, legally I'll be restricted from talking about certain things. And if that's the case, I'll tell that to the media or whomever and move on.

I don't want anyone to think, particularly in light of Mr. Acuña's resignation, that City Hall is shutting down, in terms of the media. Nothing could be further from the truth.

AC: You've assembled a new executive team. How does its makeup reflect your management style and intentions for the future?

MO: I've appointed two new assistant city managers, Robert Goode and Sue Edwards; the other new appointment has been Chief of Staff Anthony Snipes. So I'm assembling a team that I think is going to be well-suited to where I want to take the organization. Mr. Goode and Mr. Snipes bring a range of skills and experience that in some ways is different from and complements what's already here. In coming here, I have a singular mission. And that mission is to have the city of Austin become known and recognized as the best city in the entire country. So everything that I do, including personnel decisions that I make, is with that mission in mind. What we're poised to do next – the city manager and the executive team – is take some time and do some strategic planning, in terms of looking at that singular mission, and seeing whether the organization is structurally set up so that we can be successful. So at our retreat [held Aug. 1], we're going to talk about organizational structure issues and alignment issues, among other things.

AC: We heard a lot during the city manager search about City Council needing a city manager who would implement its policy, rather than de facto making policy. How does that boundary line work in reverse? How are you "retraining" elected officials to stay on the policy side and not insert themselves into the administrative process?

MO: Oooh, listen to you! First of all, let me say, I think I have a great council. And I'm not just saying that because they're my bosses. I enjoy working with them. And my reactions to the two new members have been very positive, so I'm looking forward to a very constructive working relationship with them.

Council-manager relations, in the 26 years I've been in this business, have always been challenging. I've worked in both "strong mayor" and council-manager forms of government, so I've seen both sides. What I've shared with council includes this picture, that I'm about to draw for you. (See "Drawing the Line," right.) The art associated with any successful city manager is his or her ability to navigate successfully in the middle – the gray area – in that environment right there [points to middle of diagram]. There are times when council may be on the other side of the line, and vice versa with the city manager. It becomes challenging and difficult when, instead of this ebb and flow [staying close to the dividing line] you've got that ebb and flow [crossing the outer lines]. That's a problem.

Based on what people have said, based on the very nature of your question, some of this wider ebb and flow has been true here, on both sides. I come here to provide leadership and management services to the organization. And to the community. It doesn't mean, however, that I don't engage in policy discussions; I do. It's important for me to be mindful, though, that at the end of the day, I am not the ultimate decision-maker. The elected officials are.

I understand that at times they're going to want to be involved on the other side of the line [the administrative side] as well. And that's okay sometimes, and I will do what I can to accommodate it. But the challenge for both of us is to try to stay in the middle.

AC: I've heard that you've had to say to individual council members something along the lines of, "If you want staff to work on that project, then I need direction from council as a body first."

MO: There have been times when council members have brought things to me or it's come to me through staff, and I have said: "That sounds like a great idea. But before I'm in a position to launch, because there are some fundamental policy issues there, I think you do need to have a discussion at the policy level. See if the majority of council is interested in moving in that way." I certainly have done that. To the members' credit, they've been receptive to it.

Obviously it does require, based on what I've heard, a change in behavior. What they've gotten in me is a guy who was brought up in the profession – a traditional career path. I've held every classification of assistant that there is in the manager's office; I've worked with some very good city managers over the years. So I bring that range of professional management experience to Austin.

I'm comfortable with how things are developing in terms of council-manager relations. Will that relationship continue to develop and even change over time? I think it will, for the better.

Drawing the Line: Marc Ott's diagram of city management
Drawing the Line: Marc Ott's diagram of city management

AC: Our former city manager didn't believe Aus­tin needed a new comprehensive plan; do you?

MO: From the time I arrived here, I have been talking about the need for a true and updated comprehensive plan. As a new city manager, I early on articulated that to the Planning director and to the assistant city manager. When [Neighborhood Planning and Zoning Dept.] Director Greg Guernsey gave his presentation at a council session on the interim update [to the 1979 Austin Tomorrow Plan] not long ago, I made it clear to him that it was important to talk there about the need to go beyond that and do a full-fledged comprehensive plan.

I don't very often speak from the dais. But I did that day, to emphasize the importance of undertaking a comprehensive plan. At the spring budget sessions, I again emphasized the need and went further to inform council that it was my intent to provide full funding for it when I prepared the budget for financial year '09. Ultimately, in response, they did take action that does direct that. So I want everyone to know and understand that from the manager's perspective, I think it's absolutely important that we do this.

AC: Why?

MO: Why? Because it's the guide for how we grow and what we become.

AC: You sound dumbfounded, that it wouldn't be completely obvious.

MO: I come from a place, and I've worked at other places, where we not only had a comprehensive plan, but we updated it every year. To a place where it hasn't been updated since when? 1979? If you come to this, from where I come from – I don't want to overdramatize it, but I was just ... shocked.

AC: What benefits might the average Austinite expect to see from a fresh comprehensive plan?

MO: A more deliberate approach to land-use decisions, quite frankly, in a way that we know how things tie together better – and to what end, ultimately. As I understand it, instead of a comprehensive plan, we have a series of different kinds of land-use ordinances and a set of neighborhood plans done "in lieu of" – all of which aren't necessarily aligned. They don't necessarily serve any ultimate end, in terms of the city as a whole. So what do we intend to grow up and be, from a land-use standpoint? What's the answer? Do you know? Does anyone know?

AC: Could doing a comprehensive plan mean that neighborhoods give up what power that they do have now, through their neighborhood plans?

MO: I don't think we should conclude that neighborhood plans are not valuable. A lot of time and thought has gone into them; I don't think we should dismiss or discount them. They need to be part of the dialogue and the process that gets us to a comprehensive plan. But the fact of the matter is, I don't think the neighborhood plans have the force of law.

Here's what I want to say: People have no reason to fear a comprehensive plan or the process associated with it. It's all about helping our city be the best place it can be – for all of us. It isn't about taking away from anyone. It's about enhancing what we already have.

AC: Regional growth management issues are a huge topic right now. As the manager of the city of Austin, how can you help the multijurisdictional dialogue move forward? What do you see as your power to affect positive change?

MO: As a city manager, I think it's about me getting engaged. And in some cases, initiating conversations about important regional issues – mobility issues, air quality issues, storm-water management; we've got to be concerned about what's upstream.

What I'm trying to do right now is establish a relationship with the other people in the other organizations that would be part of discussing these regional issues. Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, when I first came to town, she made a point of coming over here, and I really appreciate that. I've met with County Judge [Samuel] Biscoe. The city and the county ought to be talking about the toll road, SH 130, and the kind of development that occurs within that corridor. That's just an example of an opportunity for us to work together. Cap Metro is another area where I'm establishing a relationship. The Metropolitan Planning Organization is an important player in the regional conversation when it comes to mobility issues. You've got a [regional mobility authority], you've got [Capital Area Council of Governments], all of these different organizations. So now what I'm trying to do is establish open lines of communication.

But I'm not sure that I see a pre-existing venue where the necessary kinds of regional growth management conversations can occur. One of the things I've noticed is that here there is a separation between the Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Council of Governments. I come from a place where the MPO and the COG interact as one entity. In that setting, you can talk about a lot of these regional issues, and the officials and city managers like myself have an opportunity to participate, to lead, and to influence those things. Here you're having a lot of these conversations, but there's no place to do it. I think that model of integrating the COG and the MPO is a good one. I certainly won't be shy about making those kinds of suggestions.

AC: Let's talk about the city budget. Can you talk about how you see the city manager's role and powers, relative to those of City Council?

MO: Per the City Charter, I'm charged with preparing and developing a budget – and delivering it by a specific date. Council can review that, amend it if they desire, and then they adopt the final budget. Now processwise, it's more complicated than that. I have my own approach to getting that done, and it sounds like my approach is different than what's been the case in the past. I think that it needs to be a collaborative, participatory process. It involves obviously staff, the council, and I think it needs to involve the citizens – and I don't mean at the end of the game, in terms of council and citizens. I mean at the beginning of the process.

That is one of the primary reasons I had those early work sessions, back in the spring. I wanted to start the budget process knowing I'd already had the benefit of the council members' perspectives. We asked for the citizens to submit comments too – although I don't know that we ever got any. But I invited that. I just felt that was really important, because this is one of the most important things that the city manager and the policy-makers do together: form the fiscal plan for the upcoming year. It's our business plan, so to speak.

AC: How involved were you personally in scrutinizing line items in the budget?

MO: Here's what I didn't do. I didn't say, "We're $25.3 million short, so that translates to a 2.3% reduction across all General Fund departments." I didn't say that. In my view, department heads are more like chief operating officers. So I said to my department heads – my chief operating officers – "Go back, look at your businesses, and find savings. I'm unleashing you: It's your company, and I want you to run it. Be mindful of mission and the programs and services that you deliver and the expectations associated with that." But I didn't tell them how to do it.

For example, in the Police Department's case, the chief went back and redesigned the deployment of officers and modified that in such a way that it resulted in significant overtime savings. That's not a line-item issue, per se. It's clearly a programmatic change – working smarter.

If you need to cut 2.3%, make no mistake, I can get the budget books and come in the room and close the door, and I can find 2.3% in cuts. But at the end of the day, what you might have is a mess – an absolute mess. Far be it from me to have a department in my office, in front of my budget team, and I'm going through their budget on a line-item basis. It's silly! And it's reckless. Because I don't know enough. And I'm not respecting you, my chief operating officer, if I'm down there digging in your line items like that.

AC: We've heard a lot about the huge portion of the city budget – more than 60% – dedicated to funding public safety agencies. Based on what you've seen so far, does Austin need to adjust that balance?

MO: Public safety is expensive in every city. Are we spending too much on public safety in Austin? I don't know. Yet. Are there reasons why it's as expensive as it is? Sure.

But it sounds like as a matter of policy, we made a decision that, from a personnel standpoint, in our decision to be competitive, we wanted to be at the top of the market. Well, we are at the top of the market! But in some cases, that's 20, 25, 30% above our nearest competitors, relative to some positions and ranks in the Police Department. Do we really need to be that far at the top of the market? We need to think about that and about dialing that down.

AC: How does adequate funding for Health and Human Services interplay with adequate funding for police, as a means of crime prevention and protecting public safety?

MO: You're asking me: "Could we temper our budget approach some, to the extent that we made a greater investment in social-service types of things? The things that ultimately would be preventive, in the sense that people would never get caught up in the law enforcement and judiciary track?" That has some merit, it seems to me. Is that worth some kind of analysis or investment? I think that's a discussion worth having, quite frankly.

If you cut social services, there's an impact that affects the other side, right? I don't think those cuts are necessarily the answer when times get tough financially. But I do recognize there's a propensity to go there first. What I can do, and what I will do, I'll know as I mature a little more in this city. But rest assured, I will have a point of view at some point. And I won't be shy about articulating it.

AC: We had 1998 bond moneys for park capital improvements sitting around unspent for seven to 10 years, because the Parks & Recreation Department was too underfunded to staff, operate, and maintain any new facilities, or even the ones it already had. Is that a concern?

MO: If we have bond money that we haven't spent yet, that concerns me – if it's true for Parks, it's true for other capital investments funded by the citizens, and that means we haven't managed our capital program as well as we should. That was true in Fort Worth, and I did a lot of things to change how we did capital-project delivery – so that we were doing it more efficiently, on time, on budget. Keeping our word with the people that vote in these bond elections, for crying out loud!

If you find for some reason that you can't – because, for example, the cost of construction materials has gone up by 30 or 40% in a short period – then you have to tell the people that! We're confronted with that here in Austin, by the way. We need to at least have the conversation: The $567.4 million bond program? It's a bust! Whatever we said we were going to buy with that, we can't do that now with $567 million. So we're going to have to deal with it.

I'm going to be looking to the director [the new PARD director being hired] to give me the story on our Parks Department. I don't know it yet. Has there been enough investment here? Have we ignored too many things for too long? All of that. So that I can suggest, if the director doesn't, to look outside of the General Fund and the bond program for other opportunities to bring funds to our city so that we can enhance our parks system. That's going to be a top priority.

AC: I've heard good things around City Hall about the calm professionalism you exude. One description was that you have a "zenlike" quality. What's the source of that?

MO: I came here having made up my mind that I simply was going to be myself, just plainly. No pretense, no hidden agenda, none of that stuff. Now we all have ego, and in this job, you have to have some. But I'm always mindful that I have to do the work – with regard to that ego part – such that it doesn't get in the way. So that it doesn't prevent me from hearing what someone has to say, or being receptive to the next good idea and not envious of it or fearful of it because it wasn't my own. I'm allowing myself to do the job and be vulnerable in it, all at the same time. It sort of feels like I have no fear. You following me? I have no fear.

I'm not perfect. I'm gonna mess up. [Laughs] If I haven't already. And when I do, I hope my response will be to admit it. Apologize for it, learn from it, fix it if I can. And hope we can move on.

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  • More Q&A with Marc Ott

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