Council-Staff Tension Spills Over in Budget Talks

Spelman and Martinez drill staffers over cost projections and turnover

Council's performance review of City Manager Marc Ott is set to conclude this week.
Council's performance review of City Manager Marc Ott is set to conclude this week. (Photo by Jana Birchum)

When Council Member Bill Spelman unloaded – double-barrel style – last Thursday on Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes, he was aiming, at least ostensibly, at city staff over delays in the creation of a "leave bank" for city employees. But, as any Texan knows, buckshot scatters. And Spelman wasn't the only one firing: This year's budget season has been remarkably tense. Council Member Mike Martinez in particular has grilled staff over vacancy issues and typos in staff budget reports that, in at least one case, appeared to give Martinez pause over questions about whether they were indeed errata – or something more.

The tension between Council and staff comes on the heels of yet another police-involved shooting of an African-American man, the accompanying return of the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of Austin Police policies, the collapse of collective-bargaining talks with the Austin Fire Department (along with a raft of accusations against city management from Austin Firefighters Association President Bob Nicks), and the recent re-emergence of a scathing 2010 internal staff ethics report. AFSCME, too, has joined the party. Representatives of the local chapter of the union for municipal employees, in search of a 3% raise, employed a litany of stats at Thursday's first public hearing on the fiscal year 2014 budget to hammer city management over what they painted as an ongoing bloat of organizational fat.

In this broader context, statements from Spelman and Martinez appear to capture a growing dissatisfaction with city management – at least at some specific levels. Spelman was remarkably blunt at Council's Aug. 22 meeting. He began tearing into Snipes by asking him whether he knew why his office hadn't shared changes in the proposed leave bank ordinance with the city management team. After a pause, and a "no" from Snipes, Spelman dove in.

"We – meaning my staff ... first began discussion with you and your staff on this issue in September of last year. They had lots of meetings, they spent lots of time talking to your staff about this. And it dragged on and it dragged on and it didn't get anywhere because all the way through they got a very strong impression ... that your staff did not want to work with us on this," Spelman began. "This took as long as it did because we weren't getting any help from you. So it seemed to them ... that if we gave this to you several days in advance, you would just come up with a whole bunch of – I almost said excuses, and I think I'll continue to say excuses – for why you can't do it or why it's going to cost too much money, and [you] would try and talk us out of it. It seemed to them and it seemed to me at the time that providing this to you at the last possible moment would be the best way of avoiding excuses."

Council Member Bill Spelman is unhappy with staff's handling of employee leave banks.
Council Member Bill Spelman is unhappy with staff's handling of employee "leave banks." (Photo by John Anderson)

He continued: "We failed at that. You came up with additional amounts of money that you think this is going to cost, and you came up with some arguments for why it is we shouldn't do it."

Snipes, on the spot in front of Council, issued a careful response. "I believe that based on the work that staff has done of course for the last month-and-a-half in putting forth a leave bank that we've never done before, I think that staff did a very responsive and deliberate job in trying to bring forth to this Council the best leave bank proposal," he said. "It's disheartening that you believe that we can't be collaborative, because my staff works very hard to provide the best possible service to not only your staff, but [to] Council. So, if that's the case, I do apologize." City management declined further comment last week.

For his part, Martinez targeted human resources chief Mark Washington, questioning a set of numbers included in the FY 2014 document that appeared to indicate a dramatic increase in staff turnover. Washington told Martinez the figures were not accurate in such a way that Martinez was forced to abandon the implied concern over staff dissatisfaction. Martinez then obligingly asked budget staff for details about their proofreading process (the turnover errors weren't the only ones Council members have found). But Martinez, who noted that the figure listed in print was very specific, did not appear to fully believe that the turnover figures were an error.

All this palace intrigue may not ultimately amount to much. Though City Manager Marc Ott is in the middle of a two-part annual Council review (set to conclude Aug. 29), and there is clear dissatisfaction with city management, Ott has reportedly been in this position before. Back in June 2012, the Rev. Joseph C. Parker of David Chapel sent a letter to Council members, writing he was "concerned that I am hearing that there is a move underway to urge you to give [Ott] a poor review and perhaps even terminate his employment."

Parker went on to note Ott's accomplishments as city manager and added, "I also believe that many from a cross-section of our community are quite pleased with Mr. Ott's performance; and I and many others in the African-American community would find great offense to any effort to terminate Mr. Ott's employment."

Lurking behind this inner conflict is the massive change headed Council's way in the form of a new 10-1 system. The confusion that appears set to erupt upon the swearing-in of at least nine new Council members will leave the sitting city manager – Ott or whomever – in a much more powerful position. Some might even characterize the role as an unelected strong mayor. There's no official campaign to revamp the council-manager form of government – and indeed the charter change to affect such a move couldn't hit ballots for at least another two years – but make no mistake, the sentiment is there. As for more immediate change: Stay tuned.

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City Council, budget, Anthony Snipes, Bill Spelman, Mike Martinez, leave banks, Marc Ott

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