AG Rejects City’s Reasons for City Manager Search Secrecy
Paxton's office says withholding of information violates the Public Information Act
It's fair to say that if this City Council ever wants to hire another city manager – not a likely short-term prospect – it will do things differently than it did in finding Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk. Last spring, Council accepted the advice of search consultant Russell Reynolds Associates that keeping applicant names secret – until the selection of a single finalist – would mean a better candidate pool. In the end, the city named a half-dozen semifinalists, but only after a farcical (and failed) attempt at secret interviews – and a lawsuit from the Austin American-Statesman charging violations of the Open Meetings Act.
With that lawsuit still pending, on Jan. 10 the city was informed by Attorney General Ken Paxton's office that most of its attempts to withhold information violate the Public Information Act. Assistant Attorney General Matthew Taylor wrote Assistant City Attorney Neal Falgoust that most of the city's requested exemptions from disclosure are impermissible under state law. Taylor rejected the argument that the information (requested by media, including the Chronicle) constitutes either "trade secrets" (for Russell Reynolds) or is covered by attorney-client privilege, or that applicant information might be "private" because it could be "intimate or highly embarrassing." Taylor's letter allows that some very specific information (e.g., personal email addresses) might be withheld – a category that apparently included information that "pertains to an agent of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration." (If that person was a finalist, he or she would have faced an interesting Austin introduction.) The city hasn't yet officially responded, but would have to sue the AG to overturn Taylor's opinion.
Council members have defended the confidential search as "awkward" or even "farcical" but necessary, although several were uncomfortable with it from the beginning, relieved when the semifinalist names were revealed, and now say they're delighted with their choice. Let's hope Cronk is everything they've been searching for.