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

5:02 p.m Thursday, Oct. 26, 2017 Politics

More than a year and two months after former Austin City Manager Marc Ott announced he was departing for a Washington job, the City Council is ready to start interviewing candidates to replace him.

But don’t expect any chance for public input on the city’s most powerful public role. The council voted unanimously in March to conduct interviews in secret and release only one name at the end: the chosen finalist.

That means next week, as the council meets behind closed doors Tuesday and Thursday, it’ll be trying to sneak in the six to nine candidates who will be in town for interviews.

Such secrecy is unusual in Texas city manager searches. While cities sometimes try to bypass public information laws by hiring private consultants to manage searches and keep otherwise public documents confidential, cities typically provide a process for public input on the finalists. Dallas announced five finalists for its city manager job last year before bringing them in to meet with council members and citizens. Other large cities, including Austin in its previous city manager searches, have done the same.

But this council, acting on the advice of executive search firm Russell Reynolds, agreed to a process to keep even the short-list candidates secret, saying it hoped to attract more applicants that way.

“Our constituents trust us,” Council Member Ellen Troxclair said. “We were elected to make big decisions for the city.”

Russell Reynolds has been coordinating the search process and fielding the applications. Texas law holds that information a private consultant collects for a government entity is subject to the Texas Public Information Act, specifically noting in the act’s handbook that a city “may not contract away the right to inspect a list of applicants maintained by a private consultant for the city.”

The American-Statesman has multiple public information requests pending for information about the city manager search. However, some cities have become adept at trying to shield that information via other legal arguments, said Tom Gregor, a Houston-based attorney with experience in open records law.

Public information advocates called those efforts out of step with the spirit of the law.

“That’s public information, the public has a right to know, and it should not be shielded,” said Kelley Shannon, executive director of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas. “Austin needs to realize that.”

Several council members said their decision to keep the process fully secret wasn’t set in stone and that they could still change their minds and opt to make the finalists public. But they acknowledged that, because candidates applied with the expectation of confidentiality, the finalists would likely need to agree to do that.

Meanwhile, a grass-roots movement has bloomed among some staff members to draft interim City Manager Elaine Hart for the job. The city employees’ union sent a letter to Mayor Steve Adler advocating to permanently install Hart, a longtime administrator in various departments who was Austin’s chief financial officer when she was tapped as interim city manager.

Adler said this week that he’d shared the letter with council members, but would not say whether he supported diverging from the council’s clear mandate, when Ott left, that whoever was named interim city manager would not be eligible for the permanent job. Hart told the Austin Monitor earlier this month that she would be interested in the full-time city manager job if offered. She would not comment further this week.

Council members including Leslie Pool and Sabino “Pio” Renteria said they were impressed with Hart and favored considering her. Others said her name remained off the table. Council Member Ora Houston said it wouldn’t be fair to do “a U-turn” on the national search process in order to hire Hart.

Overall, council members called themselves impressed with the pool of candidates, whose résumés they said they’d reviewed during closed executive sessions in recent weeks.

Next week, they’ll be looking for leadership skills and experience managing complex organizations as they conduct interviews.

Council Member Jimmy Flannigan said he’s be looking for someone who can balance responsiveness to the council with professional focus. Adler called it important to be able to balance giving clear options to council with comfort expressing recommendations. Houston said she’d like to see “lived experience,” while Pool is looking for “someone who understands the value of neighborhoods over business development.”

Council members’ input will help Russell Reynolds whittle the list of semifinalists to a few finalists. At that point, a citizen task force is expected to meet, confidentially, with the finalists, but how that will be structured is unclear. Council members said they hoped to decide by the end of the year, so whoever is hired can move over the holiday break.

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