Statesman sues for city manager candidate names as interviews begin

11:24 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 Politics
Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso, one of several Austin city manager finalists being interviewed this way, leaves his interview Tuesday at the Hilton Austin Airport.

As the City Council began interviewing city manager finalists Tuesday in secrecy, the American-Statesman sued the city of Austin to seek access to the names of candidates.

The Statesman independently confirmed the identities of four of the five candidates who interviewed Tuesday, as they were seen entering and exiting the interview room at the Hilton Austin Airport hotel.

Ann Arbor City Administrator Howard Lazarus, Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso, Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk and former Tulsa City Manager Jim Twombly met with council members in a closed-door executive session. The fifth candidate, a woman, hid her face with a folder as she entered the room for her interview.

Four more finalists are expected to interview with council members on Thursday.

BACKGROUND: A year after Ott, Austin city manager interviews to begin in secret

Stephen Newton, a representative of search firm Russell Reynolds, blocked the candidates from commenting Tuesday as they walked in and out of the interviews. Only Alfonso, who has been in Austin since last week checking out local nonprofits and business organizations, agreed to an interview after the Statesman saw him checking into the hotel Monday evening.

Newton and his staff worked Tuesday to zigzag candidates in and out of various doors at the Hilton in an attempt to avoid Statesman reporters and a photographer.

City Council members voted unanimously in March to withhold from the public the names of even finalist candidates for city manager — creating an unusual shroud of secrecy around the city’s top public position.

Last week, the city denied a Statesman request under the Texas Public Information Act seeking the names of finalists for the city manager job. In a letter to the Texas attorney general, the city stated that revealing their identities would undermine the search for the best job candidates, citing a Texas Supreme Court ruling often applied to businesses competing for government contracts.

MORE: Austin vs. Watauga? City claims competition to keep candidates secret

“The residents of Austin will be paying the salary for a new city manager, and at the very least should know the finalists being considered by the city for such a critical role,” Statesman Editor Debbie Hiott said. “Whether the City Council agrees or not, the legislative intent of the Texas Public Information Act has always been clear, that this is the type of information the public is entitled to know. If the city doesn’t want to inform the public, the newspaper will.”

Austin’s city manager job has remained vacant for more than a year since former City Manager Marc Ott left for a job in Washington, D.C. Interim City Manager Elaine Hart has filled the post since then, running the day-to-day operations of a city with 14,000 employees and a $3.9 billion budget. Hart is earning $306,233 in the interim role.

Texas has laws allowing for confidentiality of candidates for school superintendent or chief executive of an institution of higher learning, but not for government officials such as a city manager.

“Because the Legislature has not made the names of applicants for city manager confidential — as it has with other public job positions — the ‘competitive bidding’ exception to the (Texas Public Information) Act should not be interpreted to apply to such information as a matter of law,” the Statesman’s lawsuit said. “The decision whether to make that information confidential must be left to the Legislature, not the city.”

Mayor Steve Adler defended the city’s handling of the city manager search, saying he trusted the advice of Russell Reynolds.

“The question is: Is there a paramount competitive issue?” Adler said. “The national firm we’ve hired, which has done hundreds more of these searches than we have, told us (there is).”

NOT TO WORRY: Runaway Bay mayor says city isn’t competing with Austin

He said he considered defending against the Statesman’s suit important. Previously, elected leaders said secrecy was the best way to attract a wide pool of applicants.

“The legal staff at the city has a different interpretation of the law than the Statesman,” he said. “I don’t think that implies bad faith. … The position is so important.”

City Council members began the interviews in a festive spirit, with some dressed for Halloween. Council Member Kathie Tovo donned purple hair, while Council Member Alison Alter dressed as Wonder Woman. Council Members Ora Houston, Delia Garza and Leslie Pool wore a mask, cat ears and a witch’s hat, respectively.

Lazarus, the first candidate to interview, was Austin’s public works director for eight years before departing last year to take the city administrator job in Ann Arbor. He previously worked as engineering director for Newark, N.J., and served in the military, according to the Ann Arbor News. He is a graduate of West Point.

Alfonso, who interviewed midday, is the son of a Cuban political prisoner, fled Cuba when he was 11 and has lived in Miami most of his life, he said. He served in the Army during the Persian Gulf War. After returning home, he rose through the ranks at Miami-Dade County, beginning as a transit revenue collector.

As city manager, Alfonso has presided over a few years of relative tranquility in the normally volatile Miami government and helped turn around a financial department with dwindling reserves as it was under federal investigation, according to the Miami Herald. But “Miami’s political nature leans toward turbulence” the paper said, and city commissioners twice tried to fire Alfonso last year after he axed the director of the Little Haiti Cultural Complex.

IN THEIR WORDS: Council explains secrecy on city manager candidates

“I’m the fifth manager this (Miami) mayor has been with, and I’m the longest serving city manager since 1995,” Alfonso said Monday. “You do this job for four years and eventually people are not happy with you.”

Cronk, a Minneapolis native, became city coordinator there in 2014, after working as a commissioner in Minnesota’s Department of Administration, leading state purchasing, according to a city news release at the time. He previously worked for the city of New York.

Twombly left Tulsa last year, ahead of a new mayoral administration, after five years as city manager, according to the Tulsa World. He has recently been a finalist for city manager in both Dallas and Amarillo, cities that conducted transparent city manager searches with opportunities for the public to weigh in.

He previously served as city manager of Broken Arrow, Okla., and city administrator of Pella, Iowa, according to his résumé.

Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, told the Statesman on Tuesday that the city’s attempt to keep the finalists’ names hidden was the most recent contortion of the Texas Supreme Court case Boeing v. Paxton, a ruling made to protect the bidding process involving private companies.

“When you are hiring (for) an important position like city manager, city attorney or police chief, that rises to the level of position that transparency is needed,” Shannon said. “And the public needs to be in a loop in the finalists and the hiring process.”

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