Ott Future?

Council ponders the city manager's performance

City Manager Marc Ott
City Manager Marc Ott (Photo by John Anderson)

By the time most of you read this, members of the Austin City Council will have already convened in executive session to give City Manager Marc Ott his annual performance review – scheduled, after two postponements, for today, Thursday, Aug. 16. Barring an unlikely shift in what might best be described as the firm-but-cracked ground beneath his feet, Ott will survive the event and continue to serve the citizens of Austin.

Council members are understandably reluctant to give anyone a direct peek into their deliberations about Ott and his future. Ott's position is heavily draped in politics, and at its base, the discussion that council will have about Ott's performance is a personnel matter. But there have been whispers – about Ott's rigid management structure, about diminishing staff morale, about management interaction with council. Rumors of a possible ouster had been strong enough to bring calls of support for Ott and his work as CM to council offices in advance of his review from a variety of local sources, such as the Real Estate Council of Austin.

No council office was willing to comment directly about the pending review. But by reviewing a set of the issues that continue to dog Ott's office, the tenor of that discussion can be reasonably surmised.

Ott has served since 2008; the last time he was so visibly threatened came in 2010. In the wake of controversy over management's handling of the release of the KeyPoint report about the then-lingering Nathaniel Sanders II shooting, word spread that more than a few council members were ready to send Ott packing. Instead, former City Attorney David Smith took the fall for the report and resigned in May 2010. Some say jettisoning a subordinate as a fix in the wake of a scandal is an Ott hallmark.

Ott survived his 2010 trials – rumor was, thanks to the mediating efforts of then-Council Member Randi Shade – though council did deny him a pay raise. In the wake of that discussion, and a subsequent email flap between Ott and former Austin Energy General Manager Roger Duncan, Shade sent a comprehensive email to Ott that summed up her colleagues' thoughts, offered support, and implied that the city manager might want to talk with some executive coaches. (The email was uncovered by Ken Martin of the Austin Bulldog as part of his efforts to air potential open meetings violations by council members.)

The email and its accompanying documents reveal council members' concerns about Ott's communication and management skills, citing four key themes: "Mutual respect for the roles we play does not exist as it should"; "Working relationships are not as productive as they need to be"; "There must be a more clear-cut way to follow projects from conception to fruition"; and "Relationships (formal & informal) matter more than you seem to think."

"If these dynamics are present in relationships you have with Council, then it makes us wonder if the same dynamics are at play in relationships with your staff and community members," the write-up continues.

Last year in the Chronicle, Wells Dunbar reported the notable absence of enthusiasm accompanying Ott's 2011 raise. "While the nonexistent discussion of Ott's compensation was decidedly free of the KeyPoint/Nathaniel Sanders II controversy that was potentially his undoing last year, the cold shoulder from council last week doesn't exactly signal satisfaction with the city's top executive, either," wrote the former City Hall Hustler ("TDH: 8/29/11," Newsdesk blog).

The concerns detailed in the earlier emails, and the 2011 iciness, apparently persist around City Hall. Ott's handling of city attorney Smith, the controversial reassignment of former Neighborhood Housing and Com­mun­ity Development head Mar­ga­ret Shaw, and the recent forced resignation of former Austin Energy VP Karl Rábago, have raised questions about Ott's management of city staff. The confusion and fury that erupted over AE's recent rate hike, and staff dissension over the decision to lift Stage II drought restrictions at the behest of Mayor Lee Leffingwell bring additional questions about his handling of the city's two major public utilities. Add to that the stops and starts for urban rail, and the oddly timed decision to centralize AE legal staff in the middle of a rate case, and you've got enough fodder to believe that a fair chunk of council's 2010 concerns have yet to be resolved.

According to the 2010 emails, Shade and Leffingwell were the only council members willing to meet with Ott to discuss his position. (Shade has since been replaced by Kathie Tovo, who hasn't audibly suggested a position on Ott.) At the time, Mike Mar­tinez was caught in a dais email describing Ott and Assistant CM Mike McDonald as "jokes" (he later apologized), and Laura Morrison and Bill Spelman have each expressed some concern for issues presided over by the manager. Only Leffingwell – and only recently, with a four-word "I support the Manager" statement – has publicly signaled that he would stand with Ott.

Still, there's Austin's economy. Ott stands at the helm of a ship that has – to stretch the metaphor – yet to sink while skimming over top of some very rough seas. In an otherwise tepid editorial, the Statesman quoted a trade rag called Public Sector Digest: "Through the leadership of Austin's City Manager Marc Ott, the city has been committed to making government more efficient and accountable to the public through effective communication and the use of accurate performance metrics."

Like everyone else reached for this story, Ott himself was careful with his words. "I have brought more than 30 years of professional experience in the government sector to this position, and I continuously apply that knowledge to the city of Austin," he said. "We are always striving to be the best managed city, and at this time, in this current environment, I believe we are doing that. I look forward to discussing those accomplishments, which I'm very proud of, more in-depth after the City Council has had a chance to review what I've done. I am just uncomfortable getting out in front of the council to discuss my achievements in the middle of their evaluation process."

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Marc Ott, city manager, City Hall, City Council, Austin Energy

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