Point Austin: Double Top Secret Probation

City Council goes on a snipe hunt, and is left holding the bag

Point Austin: Double Top Secret Probation

It's probably just a coincidence that the New York Yankees and the City of Austin were each considering six semifinalists for the job of manager. The ruthless Yankees found a winner within a couple of months; Austin's City Council has been on the hunt for more than a year (Marc Ott resigned in August of 2016), and only this week is finally winnowing the list to two or three finalists, who may or may not be introduced to the public before someone gets the collective nod.

More embarrassed are the council members still confused over what they agreed to back in the spring.

Although the Yankees are nominally in the "private sector," they nevertheless presented all six of their candidates to the media for interviews, without apparently ruining the candidate pool by exposing wannabes – who might otherwise fear for their current positions – to public scrutiny. That was the argument made by Council and search consultants Russell Reynolds Associates when they opened the applications, and to which they've continued to cling despite a Benny Hill comedy chase by States­man reporters out at the airport, ultimately resulting in the revelation of the six remaining candidates.

I didn't take part in the candidate stakeout, but last week while reporting on the candidates' bios ("Meet the Candidates," Dec. 1), I idly asked a City Hall PIO for their full professional résumés – only to be told by Steve Newton of Russell Reynolds that they wouldn't be provided. Asked on what grounds standard résumés (hardly confidential documents) were being withheld, Newton responded, "Because you're suing us." After I pointed out that in fact it is the Statesman that is suing the city on open records grounds, the exchange grew testy – yours truly recalled that Russell Reynolds had "sold the Council a bill of goods" (concerning confidentiality) at the outset, and Newton responded that if I needed to "resort to insults" to get information I'm clearly not very good at my job.

What's My Line?

Although in the past the Chronicle has indeed sued the city when it seemed necessary – that's how we acquired a copy of the ludicrous 1992 APD report summarizing the department's credulous "investigation" of satanic abuse charges against Fran and Dan Keller – getting an early disclosure of city manager applicants does not seem high on the list of democratic necessities. It is perfectly understandable to expect the final candidates to meet the public, but it's also true that the appointed manager reports to the elected council members, and it's much more important for them to be assured of a candidate's qualifications than for a randomly assembled group of citizens to decide they like the guy (or gal).

That said, back in April, the council members bought the Russell Reynolds argument (reinforced by a few prominent local voices more often raised to demand "transparency" and "openness") that confidentiality would ensure a stronger pool of candidates, because it would include people who prefer their current employers not know they're job-hunting. In fact, the final list includes people known to have applied recently and publicly elsewhere for similar jobs; moreover, there has been no chorus of condemnation emanating from Minne­apo­lis, or Chattanooga, or Seattle, etc., when it was revealed that the currently named group is under consideration. It's hardly a big secret that Austin is a plum posting.

Who's on First?

The actual upshot is not that the candidate pool has been contaminated. It's that the Council and city government look silly for having agreed to maintain secrecy, failed to do so, and now face not just mockery but an open records lawsuit they will likely lose. Meanwhile, last week reporters who requested public information about the candidates received copies of an 11-page, grandiosely harrumphing, single-spaced "brief" from lawyers for Russell Rey­nolds, addressed to Attorney General Ken Paxton, explaining why he should allow the city to withhold the information. However many billable hours that brief (posted here) represents, you and I will pay handsomely for it.

For the record, all I asked for was the semifinalist names and professional information (the Statesman wanted more detail, also denied), and I ended up gathering that highly confidential material from the candidates' LinkedIn profiles while I was waiting for Steve Newton to let me know if he couldn't just scan and send me the résumés. That he finally told me no is a minor farce; more embarrassed are the council members still confused over what they agreed to back in the spring, and whether it left sufficient wiggle room for a small list of already identified candidates to submit to a public presentation prior to Council's final selection.

Council anticipates selecting the finalist(s) in the next few days, and interested Austinites may or may not be treated to an hour of face time sometime thereafter. From that point forward, the eventual nominee will be expected to explain to an often skeptical public the often mysterious execution of City Council policy. Let us wish her or him the best of luck.

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City Manager search, City Manager, Steve Newton

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