City Hall Firestorm: Still Burning?
Minority contracting could be the meat of dispute between city manager and Hispanic leaders
The curious irony that Austin's first African-American city manager had to publicly defend his commitment to "diversity" was not lost on Marc Ott.
"It's interesting to find myself here this morning," Ott said wryly, in opening his remarks at a news conference called by Council Member Sheryl Cole and colleagues on Monday "to encourage a diverse, inclusive city for all citizens." The show of council solidarity for Ott was organized to tamp down racial tensions, which flared after a group of 11 prominent Hispanic leaders sent a letter to council members complaining that Ott had not been sufficiently deferential when they called on him Aug. 18. The Austin American-Statesman gave enthusiastic front-page coverage to the "storm" and posted the letter online.
According to the group's widely circulated letter, the representatives met with Ott to voice grievances and "respectfully" make demands. The meeting did not go well. From all accounts, the new city manager resisted the political pressure implicit in their requests. Those included the right to submit a list of "Hispanic Quality of Life" priorities for the 2008-09 budget (already nearly finalized), asking Ott to commit to quarterly meetings with their ad hoc group, and criticizing Ott for not championing affirmative action for Hispanics. Some participants at the meeting said Ott's rebuttal of those allegations was not well received, and perhaps misinterpreted. Frustrated that their issues didn't get the desired reception, the group immediately complained in writing to Ott's bosses: "Unfortunately, what transpired has left us feeling bewildered, disappointed and quite frankly feeling disrespected." The group's letter to council members adds, "As you recall, we discussed these issues with every one of you."
United, Not Divided
In co-hosting the subsequent media Kumbaya, Cole, along with Council Member Mike Martinez and Mayor Will Wynn, sought to swiftly defuse bubbling racial divisiveness that had erupted over the weekend after the first in a series of Statesman articles. A group of African-American leaders met on Saturday to discuss how to defend Ott; at times, reportedly, that discussion became heated and angry. To tamp down an ugly split along old racial lines, council stepped out to present a united front.
"An issue has arisen where it appears some folks would like to see our community divided," said Martinez at the conference. "We're simply here to say that's not going to happen. We're going to continue moving forward as a community where everyone is included, and where everyone has a voice."
"We have made progress, but we still have a ways to go," said Cole. "But the most important thing is, we are not going back. I am with you as we stand together to move this city forward and do all that we can do to make sure that our city is united and not divided." Both they and Ott referenced a pledge to equality of economic opportunity – alluding in part to both groups' fears of losing ground gained in obtaining minority-owned business enterprise contracts with the city.
Wynn gave his standard Austin booster speech but noted, "We're all sorry there is even a story here." Later, he observed: "My personal opinion of Marc and his job performance is really, really high. It's a different management style than some folks are used to. He doesn't seek center stage and is relatively soft-spoken, but his intelligence and integrity speak volumes." Asked if he had any reason to believe Ott was failing to understand or meet the needs of Austin's Hispanic community, the mayor said: "None. He obviously still has lots of folks to meet and histories to learn – and readily admits that – but his commitment is solid."
At City Hall, the Rev. Joseph Parker called out from the crowd, "Thank you for your willingness to stand behind the city manager you selected." Other African-Americans present were openly antagonistic toward the Hispanic leaders' trouncing of Ott. "This was an attempted political hit that didn't work," said Nelson Linder, president of the Austin branch of the NAACP. "It was a power grab by the entrenched Hispanic power structure that aren't used to an African-American in a leadership position. They tried to use strong-arm tactics and then complained when it backfired. It was irresponsible and embarrassing to the folks that concocted it."
"Don't start no stuff with our manager, because you will have a fight on your hands!" said Dolores Duffy, a community activist since the 1960s. "They need to go back, sit down, and let this man do his job."
The Real Issues
Cole noted later that in hiring a city manager from out of town, council had intentionally chosen to shift the political landscape; part of the difference in Ott's style is that he believes in leaving the politicking and policy-making to elected officials.
Most of those present at the meeting with Ott (including two members of Ott's staff) wield considerable influence in Austin political, contracting, and business circles, including, among others, former state Sen. Gonzalo Barrientos, U.S. Hispanic Contractors Association Chair Frank Fuentes (widely believed to wield considerable influence over who gets minority-owned business enterprise contracts with the city of Austin), Austin Independent School District board trustee Sam Guzman, and Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President Andy Martinez. While the community leaders represented to the Statesman that they had come "to introduce themselves" to Ott, in fact, most had met Ott previously – and lobbied him on their issues – at a gathering shortly after his arrival, held at the home of businessman Andy Ramirez.
Based on interviews with a number of City Hall insiders (who all spoke on condition of anonymity), one core issue for the group was maintaining the status quo on lucrative MBE contracts from the city.
Understandably, minority-owned companies want to protect their hard-fought affirmative-action gains. The leaders also wanted Ott to give Assistant City Manager Rudy Garza a greater position of power. Garza, who oversees the city's Small/Minority Business Resources, including the awarding of minority- and women-owned business enterprise contracts, was on the short list for the city manager job but was passed over.
Ott told the Chronicle that he believes better communication can be a positive outcome of the whole unfortunate incident. "Everybody needs to try to move on," he said. "There's nothing constructive in this; divisiveness and stirring the pot doesn't serve any purpose at all. We're all better off working together, and we have that opportunity. For my part, I'm going to reach out to Gus Garcia and some of the others from that group going forward. I don't harbor any bad feelings. And I don't want them feeling uncomfortable engaging me in the future."
He added: "One thing I can tell you after six months: Austin is better than this."