Austin at Large: When Jesús Takes the Wheel
Garza sends several executives packing, brings on a host of City Hall veterans
The news is breaking as I write this on Wednesday of some big changes on the city executive team. Interim City Manager Jesús Garza, brought on board two weeks ago by Mayor Kirk Watson, announced that Assistant City Manager Rey Arellano – who oversaw public safety and directly supervised police Chief Joe Chacon – is taking his retirement, and that Jacquelyn Yaft, the CEO of Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, has tendered her resignation. Maintaining the time-travel vibe of the nascent Watson/Garza II administration, Arellano's position will be filled ad interim by former Austin Police Department Asst. Chief Bruce Mills (who also was chief of the airport police and park police, and of emergency management), and Yaft's seat will be taken by her predecessor Jim Smith – the man who built ABIA, which Yaft rebranded as AUS.
Both these dudes are, like Garza, well into their retirement years. Mills was one of the more dependable and respectable topsiders in an APD that had a lot of problems in its leadership culture. Smith rose through the ranks to become one of Garza's first ACMs, before Watson was elected in 1997. (Before that, he was a New York City fireman.) He took over the airport when it was a huge construction project and stayed to be its first director, not retiring until 2019. As the ACM over development in the mid-Nineties, he was a target of a lot of complaints from environmental activists. That same ACM role would later be filled by Laura Huffman, who had enough cred with both sides in the green wars to depart City Hall in 2008 to lead the Nature Conservancy and then the Austin Chamber of Commerce. She's now a consultant, so she will be consulting with Garza on "change management." Rounding out the HR news, Garza is bringing back Joe Canales, who worked in his office the first time and rose to become deputy city manager under Toby Futrell, to be his (interim) special assistant.
Crimes and Punishments
Let's start with the heads that are now rolling. The first thing Spencer Cronk did as city manager was create a five-year strategic plan, which he used to redefine the ACM roles, and make everyone reapply against outside applicants. The only one to survive was Rey Arellano, under whose custody APD, Emergency Medical Services, and emergency management have all been messes of various hotness, but whose position with Cronk seemed unshakeable. He's actually been on vacation for weeks and missed most of the winter-storm and police-contract drama that culminated in Cronk being fired on TV.
As for Yaft, there have been enough weird struggles at AUS during her four-year tenure, which overlapped with COVID, for any one of them to emerge as an unpardonable mistake and not just another anecdote from the wacky world of aviation. My bet is that the way AUS handled its deteriorating relationship with the operator of its South Terminal ended up costing the city $90 million to buy him out via an eminent domain "quick-take," as opposed to the $10 million Yaft offered, so out she goes. But it could be many things; if you've flown recently you've probably seen some of them. (I don't think the blame for the near-miss disaster involving a cargo plane falls on her.) In any event, she had the responsibility for spending billions of dollars of Mayor Pete's money to expand and upgrade AUS, like, yesterday, and the trust needed to make that work does not seem to be there for Jesús Garza.
Cocoon Meets Parks & Rec
It's the wave of returning heroes that is inherently somewhat amusing – this could be the setup for a comedy series – but it's not a bad strategy for an "interim" bridge period that really could last for Watson's entire two-year term, until a new permanent replacement for Cronk is under contract. All four of Garza's hires were competent performers even when they made decisions this paper did not like. They are all very, very good at slipping into the background and letting Garza and Watson be front and center.
What is more intriguing is what this announcement of immediate reinforcements says about elements of the city's workplace culture, and its performance as an enterprise, that Garza must find abominable. It reinforces the fact that Cronk got fired not just because he did politically stupid things, but also for being a bad manager who was out of touch with a wide range of city departments and stakeholders, much like his predecessor Marc Ott. Those folks knew nobody was paying attention and so they never performed better, and finally people started to notice when the list of city departments and programs that are dysfunctional started to include mission-critical things like water and power, and not just the Cultural Arts fund and the city IT department. One thing I can tell you about Jesús Garza is that he doesn't create drama as a management technique. Whatever problem he wants to solve is likely real.