Council: Everything Is in the Open

Marc Ott
Marc Ott (photo by John Anderson)

City Council returns to chambers today, Nov. 9, with a full slate of 96 Items to consider, including a public briefing on the city manager hiring process, and later an executive session to discuss "legal and personnel issues" related to the ongoing search with their lawyer. Last week's bonanza, in which the Statesman systematically disrupted Council's attempts to keep secret the names of the candidates as it conducted interviews, resulted in questions about whether Council violated the Texas Open Meetings Act by moving the location of one of their meetings without first adjusting the agenda. Statesman reporters may have also broken a world record for uses of the phrase "on the lam." We're still fact-checking on that one ...

Despite all of the hullabaloo, the process now that finalists' names have been revealed appears set to continue. Finalists include Ann Arbor City Administrator Howard Lazarus; Chat­ta­nooga COO Maura Black Sullivan; Miami City Manager Dan­iel Alfonso; Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk; and Jim Twombly, Tulsa's former city manager. Though they've all been named, no reports have surfaced about any of them losing their current jobs.

Attorney Fred Lewis, who advised Council on the issue during preliminary stages, acknowledged the differing interpretations of the Open Meetings Act, but said that he still felt it was right for Council to try and keep at least the initial interviews private. And he believes closed interviews produce a better crop of candidates. "Hiring experts have told me, and I believe them, that it will impede the quality of the candidates if you disclose them," he said. "And that's real. So it's just a matter of what interest you think is more important."

Yet transparency advocates like Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas Executive Director Kelley Shannon dismiss the idea that good candidates would run scared from a public process, citing Austin's own former police chief Art Acevedo, who was wooed several times before finally leaving for Houston last fall. And interest from a city like Austin could work in the candidates' favors in their current situations, she said. Shannon said of Council's exhibition: "That's not okay. That's not how you do the public's business."

Unfortunately for Council, the city manager search won't be the only dish on Thursday's menu. Members will also discuss proposed changes to the Anti-Lobbying Ord­inance as it relates to solid waste contracts. The Ethics Review Com­mis­sion recommended changes on Nov. 1, but there were rumblings of dissent from Alison Alter at Tuesday's work session, so we'll keep an eye on that. Council also looks poised to send the city's Labor Relations team back to the bargaining table to smooth over failed contract talks with the Austin-Travis County EMS Association (see above).

If that wasn't enough, there's a resolution on housing vouchers for the Downtown Density Bonus Program, an ordinance to waive the street name change fees for Robert E. Lee Road and Jeff Davis Avenue, and a resolution directing the city manager to consider what land would be suitable for a Major League Soccer stadium. Ellen Troxclair is also due to have her day in the sun on incorrect water bills. The Special Events Ordinance, originally on the books for today, will be postponed. Staff was so busy during the last two months of this year's festival season that they didn't have time to do the work. Add in a trio of annexation cases (Holt Cat, Moreland Addition, and River Place), and we're ripe for a long meeting.

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City Council, Howard Lazarus, Daniel Alfonso, Maura Black Sullivan, Spencer Cronk, Jim Twombly, Fred Lewis, Kelley Shannon, Art Acevedo, Alison Alter, Ellen Troxclair

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