Months after Ott’s departure, council picks search firm for successor

Austin City Council members officially began their search for a new city manager Thursday, six months after former City Manager Marc Ott announced his departure and after months of debating what type of search firm would best serve the city.

In December, council members held off on a staff recommendation to hire Ralph Anderson & Associates to search for candidates, saying they wanted to cast a wider net and consider firms with corporate as well as public agency experience.

The council selected Russell Reynolds this week, after council division over three different options and a confusing round robin of straw polling at the dais. Ultimately, by a vote of 7-4, the council preferred Russell Reynolds over Ralph Anderson and a GovHR/Transearch proposal that joined public and private sector firms.

Russell Reynolds will earn a third of the first-year salary of whomever is hired, plus a fee of $4,800, making its estimated compensation $122,800, the most expensive of the three options. GovHR and Transearch estimated a cost of $74,000 plus travel expenses, and Ralph Anderson estimated $68,000 plus travel.

Russell Reynolds is a private-sector focused firm with a four-phased search process. Council Member Greg Casar, who was the first on the dais to advocate for the firm, said his support didn’t necessarily mean he wanted to find a city manager from the private sector, but he had been most impressed with it when the contenders sent representatives to interview at a council workshop last week.

“Frankly, I was ready to approve Ralph Anderson when they first came,” Casar said. “(But) in work session, I thought that (Russell Reynolds) had something different… It felt to me that this search firm was most open to trying all sorts of different things out.”

Council Members Kathie Tovo, Ann Kitchen, Delia Garza and Leslie Pool said they were concerned that Russell Reynolds had never completed a city manager search before. The firm has done other public sector searches, including helping Houston snatch former Austin police Chief Art Acevedo last year.

“Not to hit too close to home, but I never did a police search either before the Houston search,” Russell Reynolds consultant Steve Newton told the council during their workshop Jan. 31.

Mayor Steve Adler said lack of previous city manager recruitment experience wasn’t a deal breaker for him and joined in supporting Russell Reynolds.

The firm will take the lead searching and vetting candidates to replace Ott, who ended his eight-year tenure last fall by becoming executive director position of the International City/County Management Association. Elaine Hart, the city’s chief financial officer, has been serving as interim city manager.

At a workshop last year, Assistant City Manager Mark Washington said the search process could take six to nine months once a firm was in place.

By comparison, Dallas, which also had a city manager announce his departure last summer, hired a new city manager last month. He has been on the job since last week.

Thursday, Austin council members who supported Russell Reynolds mostly stayed in support of the firm, while several opponents of Russell Reynolds indicated they would be equally as happy with Ralph Anderson or GovHR/Transearch. They spent about half an hour hashing out their preferences with various straw polls ranking their preferences.

“Before any of the press corps makes fun of us: this is open government in action!” Casar tweeted to reporters in the audience.

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