Austin City Council members will not allow the public to know whom they are considering for a new city manager — even the finalists — until a final pick is named.
Under a process the council unanimously approved Thursday, search firm Russell Reynolds Associates will solicit public input early on what criteria it should look for in a successor to Marc Ott, who left the city in October.
The search firm will then recruit applicants and whittle down the list to five or 10 finalists. Council members will pick finalists and hold interviews behind closed doors.
The process is expected to take three to six months. Only when there is a single finalist will his or her name become public, as Russell Reynolds representative Stephen Newton recommended.
“On balance, what is absolutely critical for our city is to obtain the best, most innovative, forward-thinking city manager,” Council Member Ann Kitchen said. “The process for doing that would be best served by the recommendation.”
City manager is Austin’s most powerful position: This person oversees daily operations of all city departments and fulfills roles often designated to mayors in cities without a manager form of government. Elaine Hart, the city’s chief financial officer, is serving as interim city manager until Ott’s replacement is hired.
It’s common for cities searching for a new city manager to outsource the job to a search firm that keeps confidential information that would otherwise be public.
But it’s less common for cities to keep the entire process a secret. Dallas announced five finalists for its city manager job in November, before bringing them to the city individually to meet with council members and citizens. Fort Worth, likewise, named several finalists when it selected a new city manager in 2014. Other large Texas cities have done the same.
Before Austin hired Ott as city manager in 2008, city leaders released a list of eight semifinalists and held public forums with two finalists. Even then, the council faced criticism for the process being too secretive.
A couple of recent police chief and superintendent searches — including the Houston search that nabbed Police Chief Art Acevedo from Austin — have remained totally confidential. But Newton wasn’t aware of cities that have done the same thing for a manager.
Still, he defended the secrecy recommendation, saying it would draw a wider range of candidates because some people might not want their current employers to know they’re looking elsewhere.
Council members “don’t want us to be narrow in our focus,” he said. “It could be public servants from other types of organizations, be it city, state, county, federal. It could be any number of different backgrounds who have the qualifications.”
Terrell Blodgett, a former University of Texas government professor, said he is concerned Austin isn’t being more open. Dallas and Amarillo both recently allowed public input on manager finalists with no indication it affected the quality of the candidates, he said.
“The council has taken months and years soliciting public input on CodeNext. They take weeks to decide a zoning case,” he told the Statesman. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t take public input on a manager.”
He noted that a city manager is likely to outlast most of the council members doing the hiring.
“It may be a council decision, but it ought to be a community consensus,” Blodgett said. “I wouldn’t call it a consensus if it’s a 21-day gun to the (public’s) head with a single candidate,” he said, referring to the time period between the announcement of the finalist and the official hiring offer.
Other local activists advocated for the secrecy provisions, arguing that the city should be trying to attract high-level business executives rather than career public servants.
“Let’s say you’re a $250,000 executive, and you’re happy where you are,” said Mike Levy, Texas Monthly’s former publisher, who advocates on city issues. “You’re not going to want anyone to know you’re looking.”
He argued public input on finalists adds nothing to the process.
“Ultimately, the council is going to go into executive session and hire who they think is best,” he said.
In other news Thursday at the City Council:
DNA lab revamp: Council members authorized the city’s staff to negotiate a contract allowing the Texas Department of Public Safety to oversee day-to-day operation of the Austin Police Department DNA lab, which has been closed since June after an audit raised concerns over lab analysts’ testing methods. Austin and Travis County are splitting the costs, which shouldn’t exceed $4 million over five years.
Airport funding: The council approved a contract with Austin Commercial LP to build a new 6,000-space parking garage and 70,000-square-foot administrative building at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. That $250 million project, as well as an additional $28 million approved Thursday to add more features to the terminal expansion, is ultimately covered by the fees that passengers, airlines and vendors pay to use the airport.
Affordable housing: At Council Member Ora Houston’s urging, staffers will investigate the options to convert the former HealthSouth physical rehabilitation facility near 12th and Red River streets into affordable apartments. The city recently bought the building, which is now empty.
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