Just two days before the Austin City Council planned to complete his drawn-out job evaluation, City Manager Marc Ott dropped a bombshell: He’s a finalist to run a prominent local government group in Washington.
Ott said he has declined other job offers in the past, but this opportunity with the International City/County Management Association “was compelling, given ICMA’s immense impact on the practice of municipal management.”
“That said, I want you to know that it continues to be my highest honor and privilege to serve as the city manager of one of the world’s premier cities,” Ott added in a letter late Monday to the City Council.
Ott did not respond to a request Tuesday for comment.
The announcement comes during a trying time for Ott, who has been criticized in recent months over his reprimand of the police chief, the search for Austin Energy’s new top boss and the much-delayed effort to overhaul the city’s code.
A spokesman for Mayor Steve Adler said that Ott’s evaluation, which is scheduled for Wednesday, will continue as planned.
“It sounds like an opportunity for him to move up and move on, and without any controversy with the council,” said Peck Young, a longtime city political operative. “It’s going to be a better position for himself and for the council, to be able to look for a replacement without any acrimony.”
He added: “It sounds like the best of both worlds for everybody.”
Ott is one of three finalists for the top job at the International City/County Management Association, which advocates for local governments and their managers and provides training and other services to them.
The chairwoman of the group’s board, Patricia Martel, the city manager of Daly City, Calif., declined to offer details about potential pay, though the most recent tax records for the nonprofit show its executive director made $478,378 in total compensation in 2013. Martel said an announcement about the job would come in early July.
A powerful position
Ott, who makes $339,757 in salary and benefits as city manager, holds a position that is both powerful and unusual. He controls the day-to-day operations of the city, including having all but the final say on key hiring decisions. Most other major cities — including Boston, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Houston — entrust their mayors with these responsibilities.
“We had a good relationship, I believe, the entire time,” said former Mayor Lee Leffingwell, who, as a City Council member, voted to hire Ott in 2008. He credited Ott with helping the city navigate through the recession: “We worked together to advance and in some ways rebuild Austin’s economy, and I think he deserves a lot of credit for being an important part of that.”
Still, the previous council’s 2014 evaluation of Ott included concerns that city staffers move too slowly on projects that they disagree with or think will be controversial, that Ott has hired too many executive-level staffers and that his style of delegating instead of micromanaging is “appropriate” but also means he can’t always intervene effectively when problems crop up.
As the current City Council began Ott’s latest evaluation in March, Adler told the Statesman he wanted Ott to stay on as city manager. Council Member Ora Houston praised Ott for helping smooth the transition for the new single-member-district council, in which 10 of the 11 members had never held a council seat.
Other council members had mixed views: In March, Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria said he appreciated staffers’ efforts to secure more money for affordable housing but said he sometimes has had difficulty getting timely information from Ott’s underlings. Renteria and others have also expressed dissatisfaction with last year’s controversial training session on women in government, which led to the resignation of Assistant City Manager Anthony Snipes.
Council members, who have continued to discuss Ott’s evaluation behind closed doors over the past few months, gave little reaction Tuesday to news that he is a finalist for another job.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity — for Ott and for the city,” said Council Member Leslie Pool, who said if Ott were to take the job, it could help raise the city’s international profile. She was the only council member to speak with the American-Statesman at length about the situation. “It’s a really complex job being the city manager of Austin; it takes a tremendous skill set.”
Ott’s memo comes as Adler has struggled to secure community support for his proposed $720 million transportation bond proposal, which he is trying to get on the November ballot.
“There have been meetings in which community activists have made it clear to the mayor that Marc Ott and city management would be an impediment to passing the bond,” said Fred Lewis, a longtime political activist in the city, who was present at one such meeting.
That suggestion has been delivered pointedly.
“We were very clear,” said Mike Lavigne, a longtime neighborhood activist who pressed the mayor on this point in one meeting this month. “The folks in charge right now do not have the trust of the city.”
Lavigne and other neighborhood activists feel that City Hall has shut them out of the massive rewrite of the city’s land development code, known as CodeNext, which is more than a year late and projected to be least $1 million over the original budget.
The fight over CodeNext is just one of Ott’s many recent headaches.
He came under intense criticism in April after he reprimanded Police Chief Art Acevedo — docking the chief five days’ pay — for repeatedly speaking out about the death of 17-year-old David Joseph, who was fatally shot by an Austin police officer.
The same week his punishment of Acevedo went public, Ott named his four finalists for the Austin Energy general manager position. Some longtime utility watchers blasted the list as uninspired, and Pool even suggested giving a citizens’ commission the power to reopen the search process.
Of the relationship between Ott and the council, Pool said, “Sometimes the waters are choppy; sometimes the waters are placid.”