City Hall Hustle: Ghost in the Machine

Wherein the council seeks counsel from an ancient spirit

SCENE: Thursday, May 27; the Austin City Council is nearing its third hour of privately deliberating City Manager Marc Ott's performance during executive session, following a public discussion of the KeyPoint Government Solutions report on the police shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II.

Bill Spelman (ominously): I've still got KeyPoint questions.

The rest of the council (in chorus): I bet you do!

Spelman (professorially): Am I that obvious? Well, despite all that rigamarole we heard about the city supposedly wanting to release as much of the report as possible, it doesn't seem that anyone – the police chief, the city manager, legal, anyone – pushed back on the initial redactions to get more out there.

Chris Riley (in the manner of Sonny Corleone): I think we all feel the same way – if the agreement between the union and the city was so ironclad we couldn't release shit for eight months, then how could we change that in one afternoon with a "memorandum of understanding"?

Sheryl Cole (ruthlessly filing her nails): Exactly. And that's why Ott was right to can David Smith.

Lee Leffingwell (with a grandfatherly growl): But like I just said out there, I still have my own questions – namely, what else could've been done by a more, shall we say, proactive city manager?

Laura Morrison (all business): With the KeyPoint briefing and his performance evaluation coming on the same day – are they even separable?

Mike Martinez (fuming): I'm still reeling off what city legal's Lee Crawford told us, that "council members are basically free to talk about information that you learn or hear in an executive session." So although we never got briefed on the details of the report – aside from learning it was bad news – we theoretically could've talked about it? Like some of this is our fault? Like I just said, "I have been told for the last four years repeatedly that I can't speak about anything that's told to us in executive session," not as an individual, at least. I bet you anything our new attorney Karen Kennard is gonna walk that back as soon as we finish here, saying something about "very complex set of standards about the attorney-client privilege."

Leffingwell: We've sure had our share of very complex city managers, haven't we?

(Silence. Riley leans back in his chair and falls over backward.)

Riley (still on floor): I can't believe we paid thousands for slate tiles in this eco-friendly piece of shit, and the goddamn things are cracking already! (General laughter.)

Riley (still on floor, peering underneath loose tile): What the hell is this? (Riley stands, holding a weathered book covered with occult symbols.)

Leffingwell (astounded): The prophecy was true!

Morrison: OK, but what is it?

Leffingwell (with dread): Before our last manager was exorcised, she compiled all her strange, terrible wisdom into a haunted tome – the Tobynomicon! We all thought it was just some spooky story she'd scare us with when we got too inquisitive during executive session. ... Randi, no!

(Shade opens the book. Her eyes glaze over and she begins speaking in an otherworldly voice, channeling the spirit of Toby Futrell.)

Leffingwell (hands held out against the spirits): Toby, is that you? How bad is citizen communications on Ott's performance going to be?

Shade/Futrell: It will be a bloodbath. Ann del Llano will use Ott's own words of concern about "the great divide" between East and West Austin as a cudgel against him for not pressing harder for transparency. Other speakers will vent their righteous outrage over the report – and Nathaniel Sanders' loss of life – resulting in the most painful half-hour of the city manager's life.

Cole (eyebrows raised, still filing): But what should we do with Ott? Can him?

Shade/Futrell (disdainfully): And then what? Start another six-month manager search with KeyPoint looming over it? You fools, you'd be lucky if you get Debbie Russell!

Riley: What about putting him on a probationary period?

Shade/Futrell (with condescension): How? Trim his housing allowance? No, voice your displeasure, surgically attach a BlackBerry to his hand, whatever – but leave him be. If he promises enough transparency to avoid another screwup like this, you can ride it out. If not, you can make his existence so miserable that in 12 months, he'll be begging to manage Detroit.

Spelman (doubtful): So what should we say out there?

Shade/Futrell (with contempt): Talk about his work opening up the budget – my precious, precious city budget – the action on transportation issues and street repairs. If it makes you feel better, don't give him a raise. But the poor SOB's gonna take so many lumps out there, you can say he turned it down.

The council (in chorus): Toby, what would we do without you?

Shade/Futrell: The same thing you've been doing – muddling along in this council-manager government, simultaneously longing for greater ownership of city decisions but also enjoying the insulation your manager provides! If you could truly speak freely of this executive session – or any other – would you truly wish to? Therein lies my revenge, and your curse to bear!

Leffingwell (makes a cross with pens): The power of the charter compels you! The power of the charter compels you!

(With a horrible scream, Futrell's spirit returns to the Tobynomicon; Shade returns to consciousness. Council is in a daze, unbelieving what they just witnessed.)

Shade: Whoa. Maybe those citizen communication speakers are right about fluoride after all!

Martinez: No, I think we all know what we just saw. And what we need to do.

Leffingwell (to intercom): Send Ott in here.


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