With the holidays arriving, City Council has a reduced public workload during these Thanksgiving weeks, with the next regular meeting scheduled for Dec. 7 (work session Dec. 5). Background work proceeds, with the most important task the ongoing process to select a new city manager. (In case you've forgotten, Marc Ott left for a new job in August of 2016, so it's been more than a year under the administration of interim City Manager Elaine Hart, who – though not officially a candidate – arguably has enough direct experience under her belt to step to the front of the line.)
Following the Nov. 9 meeting, the expectation was that a list of semifinalists would be available the following Monday, but that schedule was derailed when one of the current candidates (unidentified and unexplained) withdrew, and on Monday, Nov. 20, Council met in executive session for preliminary interviews with some new candidates. On Monday afternoon, Mayor Steve Adler posted the list of semifinalists on the Council message board. They are (with more detail available on Council's message board, at austincouncilforum.org):
• Spencer Cronk: city coordinator, Minneapolis;
• Cecil House: attorney, construction manager with Gilbane Building Company and formerly general manager and chief operating officer, New York City Housing Authority;
• Scott Kubly: director, Seattle Department of Transportation;
• Howard Lazarus: city administrator, Ann Arbor (formerly Austin Director of Public Works);
• Denise Roth: senior adviser at WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff (global engineering and professional services);
• Maura Sullivan: chief operating officer, Chattanooga.
The mayor also reported that small groups of Council and Citizens Search Advisory Task Force members will meet with the six semifinalists on Sunday, Dec. 3, and Council will meet to select three finalists on Dec. 7. On Dec. 11 and 12 the finalists will meet with "Council, public, and staff," although the precise format and participants in those meetings remain to be determined.
We talked to a few council members last week about the state of the search, their expectations – and about the ongoing controversy over keeping the search confidential ("Council: Adventures in Secrecy," Nov. 17). All said, they are still in the preliminary stages (essentially featuring one-hour, 11-on-one interviews with the first round of candidates), and that they wouldn't characterize the candidates beyond "excellent and diverse" in experience. Greg Casar said that on the whole the group has "a good mix of backgrounds and experience," and that "everybody's primary background is in public service." (When the search was initiated, there was some debate over whether a candidate whose primary experience was in the private sector would be a good fit for this job.)
Alison Alter echoed Casar's general characterization of the candidates, and said that Council's "goal has always been to make sure that we would have quality people and diversity. To the extent that we chose to remain confidential, it was to that goal." Alter said she is excited to continue the conversations, but that it is too soon to begin ranking the candidates. "It's still very early in the process," she said, "but I'm very impressed with many of them. I want to really understand if they can contribute to us as a sustainable city."
Alter also emphasized that the process is a "two-way courtship ... we have to convince people to come here." She said she understands the sentiment to do everything in public, but emphasized that city officials, including several of these candidates "work at the mercy of their Councils. A public job search can have real consequences for their careers ... and how things have been handled in the press coverage can have real consequences."
Casar didn't want to air Council disputes over confidentiality ("We have plenty of other things to disagree about"), but said Council is "committed to releasing the names" of the semifinalists, and that the precise nature of final public engagement was still to be determined. Mayor Pro Tem Kathie Tovo agreed, reiterating that it has been "always [her] preference" to release the names and have the finalists meet the public.
"I think the public engagement and input," she said, "is a valuable part of the process."
Exactly what form that engagement will take remains uncertain. Adler called the next stage "a two-step process": release of the semifinalist names, and then "joint interviews" with the Search Advisory Task Force to get feedback and further winnow the list. Whether the finalists will be asked to meet the public is still up in the air; Tovo said she would prefer that they do, but other members were noncommittal.
"I regret that there are two mutually exclusive choices," said the mayor. "Our most important job is to get the best candidates, and at the outset we accepted the consultant's advice that going public too soon would compromise the pool of candidates. Our experience bears that out."
"Whether they meet the public or not," said Alter, "what's guiding us from this stage is whether they have the ability to run a 13,000-person enterprise. We have great candidates, and we're working to get a shorter list."
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