More Q&A with Marc Ott

The city manager on working with council, 'unleashing' city employees, departmental silos, affordable housing, bad roads, comprehensive planning, parks funding, and how he stays calm

Austin Chronicle: How does a city manager take an even-handed approach to fairly allocating resources to the initiatives of a seven-member council? How do you make sure that the resources devoted to each member's key initiatives and pet projects is even-handed?

MO: It is difficult to do that. [Long pause] I've found it challenging in this environment, just because of the way the organization has apparently been working for quite some time. For the elected officials, they all have their group of pet projects, the list of things they're working on. As long as they have the support of council, from my perspective, my job is carry out whatever direction is given.

It's the new initiatives that at times can be problematic, especially if – in particular if – they've not had the policy discussion about it, and made a decision as a council. That's the tough part. That's where at times I will have the conversation with the official. I want to help them get to where they want to go. So it's about figuring out what the appropriate path is. But ultimately that means they need to have the conversation at the policy level, and make sure that the council as a whole is supporting that direction.

AC: How exactly are we different from Fort Worth regarding citizen engagement? Are we more vocal?

MO: More vocal, yes, and the diverse perspectives that are brought to the issues are much broader here. I think the good that comes out of it – Austin's level of intensity – outweighs anything that one might consider to be bad. Politically, obviously, I suspect that Austin is one of the only "blue" cities in the entire state of Texas. But Fort Worth is a fine city also. In my six months here, more times than I can remember, I've had people say to me, "Fort Worth does that real well." Like the things it's done in its Downtown area, as a positive example.

AC: Can you talk more about your relations with city employees? What do they need to understand about your management style?

MO: I've always struggled with questions like that, an attempt to describe my management style. I think I could never be as good a manager and leader as I hope to be, need to be.

I want employees to understand that disagreeing with me – in the course of free discussion – that there's no consequence for that.

Creating the kind of environment I'm talking about is not an easy task. First and foremost in achieving that, I think what's important is establishing a foundation of trust. You have to have that. If we don't have a sense of shared values, you and I, you're not going to know what to expect from me, and the same in the other direction. But when an idea is treated as a good idea regardless of where it comes from, and people know they are valued in that way – that they're invited to the table – then we've created an environment based on trust.

It's very clear to me that we have a lot of intelligent, bright, bright people 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. That goes to the quality of the employees we have: I think they're very capable. I wanted them to know that I intend to unleash them. To take advantage of everything that they have to offer. I told that to the elected officials, that candidly.

When we hire employees, we might hire you – Katherine – because you have expertise as a reporter and a writer. We put you in this box. Maybe it's in [the public information office], to work with chief information officers, because you have those kinds of skills. And that's what you do for us, day in and day out. But in terms of valuing employees, I think that would be shortsighted in terms of how we value you, Katherine. Because in addition to that particular expertise that you have, that we hired you for, a particular function, I would submit that you have much more to offer, in addition to that. You have X number of years of life experiences.

So when you come to work, from my perspective, I want you to bring all of that. Not just the particular expertise that we hired you for. Because I think all of your life experience is relevant to our mission as a city.

AC: What's the mood in the city manager's office?

MO: We laugh a lot in here, and in meetings too. I'm not off limits – I get ribbed too. So we have fun, and we laugh, and we may spend two or three minutes in a big meeting with 15 people laughing and having a good time. Then of course at other times we're real serious about the work. Or I get frustrated, and I show that to people. And let people know it's okay for them to show that.

When I'm in the meetings with employees, a lot of times I'm standing up and talking and walking around, and asking them questions, and people are expressing opinions. Sometimes people get a little intimidated when I'm making a passionate argument. But I say: If you think I'm all wet, make an argument!

AC: You've been portrayed by some media as a punitive manager willing to fire top-level staff for making a single error, if that mistake reflects poorly on you. Is that accurate?

MO: No, that is not a correct characterization of me. I think everything I just said earlier underscores that.

AC: In my coverage of the city, I hear from staff a certain internal frustration regarding the lack of interdepartmental coordination. I hear about "siloing," and a lack of structures in place for staff to be effectively communicating between departments. Is that an issue that you're looking at?

MO: It is, and it goes back to management style. From my perspective, it isn't enough to only know about or be concerned about that business which you're the director over. I expect you to understand how your work, your business, relates to the rest of the work in the organization, and to our responsibility to the rest of the community. That's my expectation. Of any [assistant city manager] too; and if you're a supervisor, I expect the same thing. And I expect on any given occasion, for you to have an opinion about the work of the organization – even if it's not in your particular area. I expect you to be able to apply critical thinking to any issue.

I think it begins, again, with the leader having a perspective and point of view and the ability to articulate it. Now, it isn't as simple as that. Ultimately it takes more than that. It has to be reinforced by ACMs – not just in words, but in how they manage their service groups. It has to be reinforced by department heads, and the ACMs will hold them and the people that work for them accountable as well.

So that goes back to how we value employees, as a whole person, not just for a particular expertise, but also all of your life experience. Because that means I can take any employee, and bring you over here, and put you with some other folks to address this issue, this problem, this challenge. In creating this environment, I believe that over time, we will see the silos begin to dissipate.

This kind of work experience I'm describing is much richer. And that's exciting, isn't it? That's infectious. That makes you want to come to work! The employees understand that our singular mission is making Austin the best-managed city in the entire United States. And in that context, I may be called upon to do anything that moves us closer!

AC: You're talking about achieving massive organizational, attitudinal change. Is that realistic? In a number of instances, city staff I've interviewed have told me that they've suggested solutions to problems to their bosses ...

MO: And they've not been listened to.

AC: Right. How do you change that, not just from the top, but from the bottom up, from the level of line staff?

MO: That's the challenge that is in front of us, and in front of me. I believe it's possible to change that. I'm professionally and I'm personally committed to it. Even if that means I have to find the time to make sure that I personally am touching employees at that level of the organization. So that they hear it from me, and not just a department head, or an ACM. And that takes time.

AC: So what if they believe you, and then get in trouble for rocking the boat?

MO: Then their boss will get in trouble. I'm serious about this!

It's a big ship. I'm not naive. I'm not promising anybody that next month, and maybe not next year it's going to be done. It requires being relentless. It requires being disciplined. It requires sticking to it, and overcoming frustration. But small signs of progress keep happening. At some point, you gain enough momentum in regard to the change, in regard to turning the ship, that all of a sudden that inertia is turning itself, and it's becoming infectious, and people are catching on. Eventually, it starts to become infectious not just internally, but now people out there in the community, the rest of the world, are hearing about us. And that allows us to hire the best and the brightest, even if we have to pay a premium to get them. As you become better and better, it attracts other talented people who want to be a part of it. Because that's just the nature of human beings - people want to be a part of successful things, right?

It goes back to creating the right kind of environment, and empowering people. But with empowerment comes accountability and responsibility. That's what I'm saying: Power comes with accountability to the mayor and council, and the people that live in this city and pay their taxes.

AC: In discussing the city budget, you compared department heads to COOs. Can you elaborate on that?

MO: Another way to look at this organization, the city of Austin, is as a pretty large parent company with a lot of subsidiary companies that operate under it. So in that context, department heads become CEOs for their company. I've tried to treat them that way, since I've been here.

What that's meant from a practical standpoint is, they've had to step up their game. Because I'm unleashing them: It's your company, and I want you to run it. The ACMs then have to do what? They have to fly much higher. They're like VPs in the parent company, in charge of regions, and in this case there are five, right?

So in the budget process, to live within our means with about a $25 million budget gap, one of my strategies was to call on my department directors – chief operating officers – to assess their businesses and devise savings plans. Which I and my executive team could then evaluate, and decide if we wanted to accept those savings proposals. They were great at it! As a result of that, rather than ending up 2008 in a deficit, we project we're going to end up with around a $2 million surplus – not withstanding our sales tax revenue shortfalls.

In a very collaborative way – that y'all didn't get to see – we worked together, with my chief operating officers challenged to go back and evaluate their businesses, and determine: How can they realize savings by redesigning business processes? I encouraged them to think more programmatically, not scrubbing line items. We looked at some of the enterprise-wise things that we do too, opportunity for savings. Ultimately, through that kind of collaboration, we were able to close that gap, without significantly impacting the delivery of services and programs.

AC: How satisfied are you with the outcome, for the draft fiscal year 2008-09 budget just released?

MO: Heck, for my first time, on a [$2.8 billion] budget, I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out! That the staff were able to do that, and with city manager leadership that's new to them. I think that's a big deal! And I think council's going to find, by and large, that we have responded positively to their priorities.

AC: As an example of better interdepartmental coordination: How could the city institutionalize the value of housing affordability, as a priority across all city departments, much as environmental impact is treated now?

MO: I've been here six months, and the first thing that I noticed was, there's a pretty substantive public dialogue about affordable housing that's brewing right now. When I came here, that discourse was going on. When I think about other places that I've been, that wasn't occurring. Here, it is. And by all the stakeholders in the community, not just those in need. I think that's a great thing, for starters.

I see a city that back in 2006, when they were asking the voters to approve $567 million in our bond program, made the deliberate choice to allocate $55 million directly towards this issue. In my 26 years, at the local government level, I've never seen that kind of monetary commitment before.

I also see a lot of evidence already that the city has institutionalized affordable housing as a core value. Now, is it enough? I don't know. I suspect probably not. But is what's occurring here noteworthy, in a positive way? I think the answer is yes!

AC: But what if across all departments, for all decisions, the question always got asked, "How will this affect our core value to provide affordable housing?"

MO: You're asking me, would that help? Sure it would! If that was uppermost on everybody's mind, regardless of where you worked in the organization, that would be a good thing. Should it be on the minds of the people who are responsible for infrastructure, for example? Absolutely. Because without that in the right places, perhaps you miss opportunities to enhance affordable housing. It goes back to what I said earlier, about the importance of getting people to think about how their work relates to the rest of the work that goes on in the organization. And how all of that relates to our mission.

AC: Can you talk a little more about why we need a comprehensive plan?

MO: There have been a lot of land-use related ordinances put in place over the past several years – 23 or 24 different ones in the past few years. At the spring work session, I made the analogy – some might think it silly – of someone who goes to the doctor and gets some prescriptions. And they're taking the medicine, but every time they go, they get more medicine, and the doctor never thinks to make an assessment of whether any of these things are in conflict with each other.

But without that kind of evaluation, you might get sick from it. And die! So when you think about all of these different land use ordinances and things, enacting them outside of the context of a comprehensive plan that makes clear "to what end?" – and not taking the time to analyze them, comparatively speaking, to see what if any conflicts may exist – well, we may have problems!

AC: Given our tremendous growth projections: What should a smart city be doing now, that knows it's going to have a million more people in 20 years?

MO: Developing strategy that effectively responds to that, in terms of integrated transportation, mobility, and land-use planning. That gets back to the need for a comprehensive plan, and a city and regional mobility and air quality plan.

AC: You were assistant city manager for infrastructure [services] in Fort Worth. What infrastructure issues have caught your attention so far here?

MO: Our infrastructure in general 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 percent or more of our streets to be in poor condition is for some reason acceptable. The funding standard we have is that we want 80 percent of our streets in fair, good, or excellent condition. And the reality is, the percent of our streets that are in poor condition is greater than 20 percent. Today.

So I think investment in infrastructure – streets, bridges, and things people are not seeing needs to be at the top of our list. All of those things have to do with long-term sustainability, and the viability of our community. And even the rating agencies who evaluate us, and provide us with credit ratings, look at our investments in the infrastructure. There are examples of cities that didn't invest enough over time, and they got downgraded. It takes something disastrous happening, like when that bridge failed, and then all of a sudden cities all over the country were doing bridge condition assessments. But it shouldn't have to get to that point.

When it's time for significant maintenance or replacements, we need to have planned to have the funding in place to do that. So I think we, as cities, have to do a better job of asset management. Much of the city's business is asset management, if you think about it. Take any street: If you don't take care of maintenance, if you let it deteriorate prematurely, you then incur a substantially greater reconstruction cost of that particular road.

AC: Let's talk about funding for the city's park system. Some in the community believe that for some time, the operation and maintenance of our parks in Austin has been underfunded. We have a lot of parks acreage per citizen, but not a lot per-capita rate of funding [operations & maintenance]. In the last bond election, we had to go out for bond money to fund a great deal of deferred maintenance, because facilities had deteriorated to the point of requiring capital improvements. Do you have thoughts on that?

MO: I am impressed with the city's commitment to parkland and open space, and land acquired for water quality protection, just based on what I know. I went out and toured around, saw all of this land we had bought over time – it's just outstanding and it's beautiful. I'm really pleased that the city has made that kind of commitment, and provided funding in the bond program to continue doing that. But in terms of the parks system itself, I just don't know enough about what the history has been, in terms of the level of spending.

AC: The city is about to hire a new director for the Parks Department. It's a major opportunity to set a new direction, with new leadership there; how hands-on do you intend to be in that hiring process?

MO: As a new city manager, I'm going to want the director early on to get educated, to do what I haven't had time to do in my first six months – to know early on the answer to the funding questions that you asked me. I know parks are important to everybody. That's why we've tried to make the Parks Director hiring process as open as we've made it, to give lots of people an opportunity to participate in the selection process. But ultimately, it's going to end up in here, in my office.

AC: You have an extremely high-pressure, demanding job. We heard our last city manager was a 24/7 workaholic, but that you manage to go home at a reasonable hour. True?

MO: Well, I do take work home every night. These are my homework folders, and I take several home each night. People do get e-mails from me at 2, 3, 4 o'clock in the morning.

AC: Have you ever had doubts about taking this job?

MO: You were there, the morning that council appointed me. Remember? I'm sitting in that seat with my wife and kids, and I'm sensing that pretty soon the mayor's going to ask me to come up there and say something. I'm not one to read from prepared notes. You were there when I spoke at the town hall meeting too [for the two CM position finalists]; I had no prepared notes. Because I just can't speak that way; I have to believe in it.

I was thinking, what will I say? And just as the mayor was calling me to come up, all of a sudden the haze cleared, and I simply felt ... calm. Now don't ask me to explain it, but that's what happened. As I reached the podium, and I was standing there looking at them, and looking at all of you, I decided to simply tell you what I was feeling at that exact moment.

What person that's about to take a position like this, would tell everybody: I was wondering whether or not I was going to be nervous at this moment? [Laughs] I'm supposed to be the leader! Leaders don't talk that way! But it was the truth. What I told you was: What I was feeling at that moment was calm. And I said it because I wanted everybody else to be calm too.

  • More of the Story

  • The New M.O. at City Hall

    City Manager Marc Ott opens up on his new job, his new city, and his philosophy of governance

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