Six finalists to be Austin’s next city manager will make their way from five states and the District of Columbia this weekend to begin a second round of interviews.
City leaders last week named six contenders for the job: Spencer Cronk, city administrator of Minneapolis, Cecil House, public housing construction leader for New York’s Gilbane Building Co., Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation, Howard Lazarus, city administrator of Ann Arbor, Mich., Denise Turner Roth, senior adviser for construction consulting firm WSP, and Maura Black Sullivan, chief operating officer for Chattanooga, Tenn.
The person hired will assume day-to-day responsibility over all city departments and more than 17,000 employees — a role often designated to mayors in cities without a manager form of government. Austin is the fifth-largest city in the country to have a city manager serve as the city’s executive, rather than having a strong mayor.
The finalists will meet Sunday in private interviews with City Council members in small groups, and members of the council-appointed City Manager Search Advisory Task Force. Then, the council will narrow the list to an undetermined number who will return for a third round of interviews with city employees, and possibly the public, on Dec. 11 and 12.
The council hopes to decide on a new manager quickly, in time for him or her to move over the holiday season and, if necessary, enroll children in school for the spring semester.
But after a nationwide search that’s been conducted in secret up until now, many in the community don’t have opinions yet on who might fill city government’s most powerful position.
“As far as I can tell, the only people paying attention are 11 council members and two reporters,” said Mark Littlefield, a local political strategist.
Several organizations did not return calls to comment on the finalist candidates this week. The Downtown Austin Alliance declined to comment, saying it “doesn’t know enough about the finalists.” The Austin Board of Realtors emailed only a general statement calling for a city manager “who can bring big solutions to big city problems.”
“I don’t know enough about any one of them to comment,” said Ken Casaday, president of the Austin Police Association. “I just hope they pick someone that’s competent and who’s used to working with associations and unions.”
The candidates bring different credentials to the job. Kubly has spent his career in transportation and came to Seattle as an urbanist-celebrated, bicycle-supporting leader who could solve traffic problems with progressive solutions. House has worked in New York public housing and, previously, for electric utilities.
Roth has federal government experience, as a former Obama administration official who headed the U.S. General Services Administration. Before that, she was acting city manager of Greensboro, N.C. Cronk and Sullivan both rose to high-level city government positions after working in county and state governments.
Lazarus is the only candidate who has previously worked for the city of Austin, where he served as public works director for eight years.
A couple of the candidates have recent troubles on their records. Roth drew strong criticism at the GSA when she did not require President Donald Trump to divest himself of the lease for the old Post Office in Washington, D.C., that now houses the Trump International Hotel — a position The New York Times editorial board slammed as “mystifying.”
Roth also retaliated against a whistleblower at the GSA who questioned the way she diverted funding for a new division, according to an inspector general’s report. Roth declined to be interviewed by the American-Statesman, but told Federal News Radio in June that the findings were “wrong and disappointing.”
Kubly came under investigation in Seattle last year for failing to recuse himself from city business related to his own former bike-sharing company, which operated the city’s bike-share program, according to the Seattle Times. Ultimately, Kubly admitted to two related ethics violations, for a penalty of $10,000.
Terrell Blodgett, a former University of Texas government professor and local political observer, and Jim Duncan, an urban planner heavily involved in the CodeNext process, both said they are concerned the finalist pool is light on city managers of cities with a governmental structure like Austin’s.
Lazarus and Cronk are city administrators of Ann Arbor and Minneapolis, respectively, cities with modified council-manager and weak mayor systems of government. Kubly and Sullivan work in departments of cities with strong mayors, rather than city managers. Roth and House both work in the private sector, in construction and consulting.
Blodgett added that he was surprised to see no Hispanic finalists.
Mary Ingle, former president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council, said she thought passion for Austin’s quirks would win out.
“I had a stakeholder meeting in (Central Austin’s City Council) District 9 and people wanted someone who knew and loved Austin,” she said. “There’s only one candidate (who’s worked here).”
Littlefield said he hoped the final phases of the decision would not be rushed.
“I’m a little worried that the city is going to spend a year doing a city manager search and then the community will have five days before Christmas to (affect) a decision,” he said. “There’s two parts to this: that the City Council picks the right person, obviously, but also that the person is picked through a process that the community views as fair, so the person is set up to succeed.”
Austin city manager finalists
• Spencer Cronk, 38, has been city administrator of Minneapolis, population 413,651, since 2014. A Minnesota native, he previously worked for New York City and then as a commissioner in Minnesota’s Department of Administration, leading state purchasing.
• Cecil House, 56, is an attorney overseeing public-sector construction for Gilbane Building Co. in New York. He previously was the general manager of the New York Housing Authority. House has also been vice president of major electric utilities in California and New Jersey and practiced law in New York and New Jersey, according to the website of Columbia University, where he is a faculty member.
• Scott Kubly, 43, has been the Department of Transportation director in Seattle, a city with 704,352 people, since 2014. Before that, he was deputy director of the Transportation Department in Chicago, his hometown. The job included developing a financial plan for Chicago’s Riverwalk and constructing protected bike lanes.
• Howard Lazarus, 61, became city administrator last year of Ann Arbor, Mich., population 120,782, after serving eight years as Austin’s public works director. He previously worked as engineering director in Newark, N.J., and served in the military after graduating from West Point.
• Denise Turner Roth, 43, is a senior adviser for global construction consulting firm WSP. As the Obama administration ended in January, she left her job as the head of the U.S. General Services Administration, where she oversaw 12,000 employees with a budget of $27 billion. Before that, she was the acting city manager of Greensboro, N.C., with a population of 287,027.
• Maura Black Sullivan, 50, took over as chief operating officer in Chattanooga, Tenn., population 177,571, nearly two years ago. She formerly worked in planning and development for Memphis, Tenn., and Shelby County, and was a family court mediator in Shelby County.