The Austin Chronicle

Wanted: Austin City Manager

The search continues, whether the public knows about it or not

By Michael King, October 6, 2017, News

At Tuesday morning's work session, City Council received a brief update on the ongoing search for Austin's next permanent city manager. Steve Newton, of the Russell Reynolds consultant firm tasked with the preliminary outreach, told council members that the search is "proceeding very well," and that he expects to present the dais with six to eight candidates to review and interview in the next few weeks – accordingly, city staff will adjust the late October/early November Council schedule to accommodate the interviews.

As the search has been designed, council members will consult on the first round of candidates, and select a smaller group of finalists for a second round of interviews (and possibly public meetings) later in Nov­em­ber. Council is hoping to name a new city manager to succeed interim City Manager Elaine Hart (not herself a candidate) and predecessor Marc Ott, before the end of 2017.

Meanwhile, Newton told the Chronicle earlier this week that his firm's outreach has reflected that "Austin's brand is strong."

"We're speaking to and assessing a broad list of candidates," he said. "For those who are open to making a move, [the Austin position] is considered to be very attractive. It presents a combination of a city with a great quality of life, but one with challenges that the candidates say they are eager to tackle. We've been very encouraged by the quality and diversity of our candidates."

During preparations for the search, there was debate on the Council and among advocates, primarily over two issues: 1) whether public sector or private sector experience would be given priority; and 2) whether the candidates, particularly the finalists, would be asked to meet with the public prior to the Council appointment. Council eventually directed the searchers to "cast their nets wide," although some members indicated they would be wary of any candidate without some public sector experience. Council has yet to decide whether there will be a final "public round." The consultants had advised Council that too much openness would cause some qualified candidates to pass on applying, for fear of risking or clouding their current positions.

"The first round is confidential," said Newton. "After that, it's up to City Council to determine." Newton praised the work of the appointed City Manager Search Advis­ory Task Force, which met for several months in order to draft a profile on which to base the search – adopted by Council, with minor amendments, in August. Newton said that "in all likelihood, those candidates who move forward will have had some level of public service experience – or at least, none are going to be neophytes when it comes to the public sector."

Laura Huffman, Texas director of the Nature Conservancy and herself a former assistant city manager, chaired the task force. She said she was pleased with the extent and range of community feedback, and said the group concluded that the candidates' specific public sector background would be less important than their "experience at managing truly complex operations," and their "demonstrated ability to create a positive culture, a management structure, with accountability a strong factor – accountability for strong performance and accountability for poor performance." Huffman noted the large number of current vacancies among the city's senior management, saying, "This selection is one of the most important decisions made by City Council, in order to establish the new face of city management, as well as a good working relationship between the current Council and city staff."

Among the "key competencies" described in the candidate profile is that "the next City Manager must be a leader who embodies the spirit of public service, embraces inclusiveness, and displays deep compassion for those in need." Although council members generally praised Ott for his executive proficiency and managerial leadership, they were less enthusiastic about his minimal collaboration with the elected dais, and their amendments to the draft profile suggested they want to see more public cooperation from the next city manager. Among other things, the profile mentions one major, multiform priority: "In particular, the rapid growth of the city has burdened housing, transportation, infrastructure, affordability, and equity, in ways that a new innovative approach will seek to solve."

Terrell Blodgett, professor emeritus of urban management at the LBJ School, has been a persistent skeptic of the city's search process, in particular pointing out that Russell Reynolds "has no experience" in searching for a city manager. Blodgett repeatedly advocated to the task force and the Council that they prioritize candidates with strong public sector experience, and that they include the public in final candidate review. Blodgett said he has consulted with other cities in similar searches, and that it's customary to include the public in the final selection. Dallas, Fort Worth, and Amarillo have all recently hired new city managers, he said, and "they all made the short list of finalists available to the public, and included public appearances."

As things stand, Huffman said, candidates will be expected to meet privately with the task force, who will report to the CMs who appointed them. She said the group was split on the importance of fully public meetings, with the consensus leaning toward "the smaller group charged with understanding the broad public sentiment – members felt that might be a more meaningful conversation with the candidates."

Blodgett is not convinced. "The public ought to have a shot, as they have in these other cities and as is common practice," he said. "The media should try to get the names, so as not to be caught at the end with one name, which I think the public is going to resent."

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