Austin City Manager Marc Ott leaving for Washington job

Austin City Manager Marc Ott, the most powerful man at City Hall, is leaving his post for a prestigious job running a Washington, D.C., association.

Ott’s announcement Friday came a month and a half after he told the City Council he was a finalist for executive director position of the International City/County Management Association, which advocates for local governments and their managers. He will start at the post Oct. 31.

“This wasn’t an easy decision. I’ve dedicated myself to the residents and employees of Austin for almost nine years,” Ott said Friday. “But this is a unique opportunity – one that allows me to apply 30 years of experience toward advancing the profession and bettering communities around the world. My experience here in Austin has prepared me well for this new challenge.”

As Austin’s city manager since 2008, Ott has been in charge of the day-to-day functions of the municipal bureaucracy, which includes roughly 14,000 employees and a $3.7 billion budget, responsibilities often given to mayors in other major cities.

Last month, the council gave him a $22,000 raise, bumping his pay and benefits to $361,000 annually. His predecessor at the management association made $478,000 in 2013, the group’s tax returns show.

Mayor Steve Adler called on the City Council to quickly appoint an interim city manager and to begin the process for finding a permanent replacement.

“I want to thank Marc Ott for a decade of service and dedication to Austin,” Adler said in a Friday statement. “Under his management, Austin has grown into one of the most vibrant and successful cities in the world. That’s huge, and he deserves a lot of credit.”

Council Member Kathie Tovo said: “The city of Austin is a better place for his work here.”

She and other council members also started describing the qualities they want in Ott’s successor. Tovo wants “somebody who understands and embraces the values that Austinites hold dear.” Council Member Greg Casar, who likewise praised Ott’s dedication to the city, said the next city manager should have a “strong commitment to affordability, social justice, and good government.”

Council Member Don Zimmerman, an Ott critic who called Friday’s announcement “a rare opportunity for Austin taxpayers,” wants a new city manager “who places a high priority on community service and … customer relations.”

Recession to prosperity

Ott’s eight-year tenure — one of the longest in city history — was defined by the economic calamity of the Great Recession and the city’s recovery, Austin’s transition to a district-based City Council, efforts to reform the Austin Police Department, greater investments in long-neglected East Austin and attempts to address the pressures of gentrification.

He was praised for his swift response to the economic gloom of 2008 and 2009, enacting a hiring freeze, working closely with the council on spending cuts and speeding up street repair projects while construction costs were low. And, in an experience he said affected him deeply, Ott spent a day and two nights in the spring of 2010 living as a homeless person to understand the challenges facing that population.

Even with Austin now prospering and appearing on various “best of” lists, Ott said Friday that the city must continue its Spirit of East Austin discussions on how to bring more opportunity to the city’s historically disadvantaged communities.

“As city manager, Marc has been a steadying presence, a professional and true champion of diversifying Austin’s industry base,” said Michael W. Rollins, president of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “He has supported programs to ensure prosperity is more broadly shared in our community and that Austin can be better prepared for the next eventual downturn.”

Mixed evaluations

Ott’s performance evaluations over the years often highlighted the concerns of his critics, however.

In Ott’s May 2010 evaluation, for instance, council members gave the city manager tepid backing but no raise, irked over his decision to withhold for months an explosive report on the fatal police shooting of Nathaniel Sanders II.

In 2014, an evaluation by the previous City Council raised concerns that staffers slow projects they disagree with or think will be controversial and that Ott has hired too many executive-level staffers.

Last year’s arrival of a new, larger City Council — the first modern one elected to represent different geographic districts of Austin — gave Ott 11 bosses instead of seven. Some of those newcomers had criticized city management on the campaign trail, and Zimmerman made no secret of his desire to oust Ott.

Still, heading into his first evaluation with the new council this spring, Ott had the support of Adler and a couple of council members, and City Hall observers noticed the lack of rumors and plots that had previously accompanied Ott’s job reviews.

“The tension was really more with the community and the perception they had with him,” said Council Member Sabino “Pio” Renteria, who became good friends with Ott over the years, talking over beers about the issues facing Austin. “They were always calling me up and asking me to fire him.”

For instance, Ott came under intense criticism in April after he reprimanded Police Chief Art Acevedo for repeatedly speaking about the shooting death of David Joseph, a black teen who was killed by a black Austin police officer.

While the council’s conversations about Ott’s job performance were done behind closed doors, Adler provided some insight in a July posting on the council’s public message board, which said the council was “very thankful” for Ott’s service.

However, he added: “The council would like you to be aware of performance challenges in departments and be more proactive about addressing those challenges before they rise to the level of being community-wide issues,” specifically pointing to the city’s Planning and Zoning and Code Enforcement departments, the subjects of highly critical audits and consultant reviews over the past year.

Even so, Renteria said Friday that the council was with Ott: “By our … vote endorsing him … in his heart, he knew he could stay here.”

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