You have reached your limit of free articles this month.

Enjoy unlimited access to myStatesman.com

Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks.

GREAT REASONS TO SUBSCRIBE TODAY!

  • IN-DEPTH REPORTING
  • INTERACTIVE STORYTELLING
  • NEW TOPICS & COVERAGE
  • ePAPER
X

You have read of premium articles.

Get unlimited access to all of our breaking news, in-depth coverage and bonus content- exclusively for subscribers. Starting at just 99¢ for 8 weeks

X

Welcome to myStatesman.com

This subscriber-only site gives you exclusive access to breaking news, in-depth coverage, exclusive interactives and bonus content.

You can read free articles of your choice a month that are only available on myStatesman.com.

Five months in, City Hall’s interim boss looks ahead to the future


Highlights

Interim City Manager Elaine Hart shows deftness from dais as she navigates city bureaucracy she knows well.

Hart says Austin’s trouble-plagued DNA lab and budget are her top-of-mind focuses as city caretaker chief.

A longtime city staffer, Hart says she expects the City Council will have her replacement by September.

Five months on the job and seven hours into last Thursday’s marathon City Council meeting, interim City Manager Elaine Hart found herself in the crossfire.

The council appeared deadlocked — split 5-5 — over an “affordability agenda.” The swing vote, Council Member Alison Alter, was leaning no.

But first, the council newcomer had a question: Would Hart provide some reassurance that the proposal gave clear instructions to the staff and wouldn’t pull resources away from other affordability efforts? If so, Alter suggested she would reconsider.

Hart began diplomatically, explaining the resolution would direct staffers to do many of the things they were already doing, but perhaps in a different order or format; but she added, she would take no stand.

“I’m not going to split the baby because I love you all,” Hart said, as laughter in the chamber defused a tense situation. “But we’ve heard you all, we’ve heard your comments and, certainly, we don’t have to have a vote to start taking action on some of these things.”

IN THEIR WORDS: Why the council shelved the affordability plan

The moment provided a brief insight into the political savvy of the longtime administrator, who was most recently Austin’s top budget official. She was thrust into the city manager spot after Austin’s longtime manager, Marc Ott, left last fall for a new position in Washington, D.C.

She’ll stay on the job until the City Council selects a replacement. The council signed off last month on the contract to hire a search firm to find that person, a process expected to take months.

Her powerful position, which oversees the day-to-day operation of city government, is a rarity in cities of Austin’s size these days. In many other major cities, like New York, Chicago and Houston, mayors typically hold those responsibilities.

Hart’s first few months on the job have been consumed by issues familiar, such as the budget; and not, such as the problems from the Austin Police Department’s shuttered DNA lab and the city’s giant rewrite of its land use rules, CodeNext. And keeping up with it all requires a tremendous amount of reading.

“I’m always trying to stay ahead of the issues,” she said, which isn’t an easy task in a city with a nearly $1 billion budget and almost 1 million people.

Top of that list, she said in a recent interview with the American-Statesman, is sorting out what happened at the Police Department’s DNA lab and figuring out a plan to fix it. There have been questions about the lab’s methodology and the freezer full of evidence that failed. The official who was hired to overhaul the troubled lab was relieved of that responsibility, and now a major backlog of samples need to be tested elsewhere.

“We’re working on a solution with Travis County, and we’ll be rolling it out by the end of March, including a consultant that will take a look back at what occurred over the last decade in the lab,” Hart said, adding she expects to take the proposal to the City Council by the end of the month.

The consultant’s recommendations will also include advice about the future of the lab, she said: “Should it be an independent lab, should it resume function in the Police Department, or should we outsource it?”

Sitting on a third-floor terrace at City Hall with sweeping views of Austin’s ever-changing downtown, Hart spoke openly about the limits of her caretaker status and her hopes for what she imagines will be her last few months in the position.

She won’t hire a new police chief or fill other top positions, which will allow the new permanent city manager to select or bring his or her own people. Nor does she think she’ll be around long enough to shepherd CodeNext to completion.

Her goals are completing the upcoming budget and creating a shorter-term strategic plan for the city, effectively breaking the 30-year Imagine Austin plan down into five-year increments.

“The strategic plan I can get to way down the road,” she said.

And while Hart has consistently said she has no interest in applying for the city manager position, she would consider staying if asked. She’s already been in the role for longer than she initially expected.

“Well, they told me six to nine months, but I’m thinking it may be more like a year,” she said with a chuckle. The delay is part calendar — who would want to take over in the middle of budget season — and part Austin. “I was a little realistic about it, knowing how we like public engagement and thinking through the timeline of when they might get candidates.”

Hart thinks she will be replaced by the end of September.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Politics

Opinion: On JFK's 100th birthday, Trump repudiates his legacy
Opinion: On JFK's 100th birthday, Trump repudiates his legacy

Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter are both over 90, and still with us — making it just barely conceivable that John F. Kennedy might have lived to celebrate his 100th birthday on Monday, if he had not been assassinated in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963. Surely JFK would have noted a contrast between his Jan. 20, 1961, inaugural...
Trump budget may slash aid to Austin housing, elderly, flood recovery
Trump budget may slash aid to Austin housing, elderly, flood recovery

Child care help so minimum-wage parents can work and earn a paycheck. Social workers to care for elderly people who need help getting through their daily lives. After-school programs for kids who’d be left to their own devices otherwise. Housing vouchers for people who’d be on the streets. Those are the programs targeted in a 2018 budget...
Joe Straus, Dan Patrick snipe on bathroom bill, special session
Joe Straus, Dan Patrick snipe on bathroom bill, special session

Speaker Joe Straus said the House will budge no further on transgender bathroom legislation and that the Senate can take the measure the House passed Sunday, which Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick did not feel went far enough, or leave it. “The House approved language last Sunday night that required schools to make private accommodations for students who...
Budget, planning woes on the horizon for deteriorating Austin pools
Budget, planning woes on the horizon for deteriorating Austin pools

Three Austin neighborhood swimming pools will sit out the 2017 swim season for repairs, while others remain in “critical” condition and the city grapples with the future of an aquatics system that is rapidly deteriorating. Givens and Govalle pools in East Austin, and Shipe pool north of downtown, all in various stages of repair, will not...
Rough treatment of journalists in the Trump era
Rough treatment of journalists in the Trump era

For those concerned about press freedom, the first months of the Trump administration have been troubling. Journalists have been yelled at, pepper-sprayed, pinned by security and even arrested on the job. Now, one reporter has accused a Republican candidate of assault.   Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists...
More Stories