From 44 to 1: Did Austin get a good city manager applicant pool?

The search firm evaluating candidates for Austin city manager screened 250 people for the position, consultant Stephen Newton told the City Council in December, including 200 identified by his company, Russell Reynolds.

Most of those people did not apply for the job.

Russell Reynolds received 44 applications for the position between August and October, according to recently released records.

Newton said Friday that his firm called hundreds of people after conducting research and gathering word-of-mouth referrals to see if they would be a good fit.

“We reached out to people by phone, and people reached out to us by phone,” Newton said. “Either by qualification or mutual interest, they submitted applications.”

The city of Austin fought to keep from releasing copies of the applications when the American-Statesman requested them in October, after the council voted to keep all applicants secret last March, saying the confidentiality would bring a larger candidate pool. The Statesman sued for release of the records, and it amended the lawsuit in early November after the council fled a posted public meeting location to try to hide candidate interviews from the press.

The council later reversed its decision to keep the process confidential up to the end and released the names of six finalists, ultimately bringing Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk and Ann Arbor City Administrator Howard Lazarus in for public forums. The council voted in December to hire Cronk and last week approved his contract with an annual salary of $325,000.

The Texas attorney general’s office struck down Austin’s arguments for withholding the city manager search records last month and, after council members conferred behind closed doors at a meeting Thursday, the city complied with the request Friday morning.

The records show about a quarter of Austin’s applicants were from the private sector, ranging from lawyers to real estate bankers. Another quarter were city managers or former city managers of cities with fewer than 50,000 people, including the Texas cities of La Porte, Lamesa, Horseshoe Bay and Weslaco.

The post drew résumés from the assistant city manager of Corpus Christi and two former assistant city managers of San Antonio, but no internal city of Austin candidates or current assistant city managers of comparably sized cities.

The city manager of the largest city to apply was Christopher Brady of Mesa, Ariz., a former San Antonio assistant city manager, who was passed over for an interview. Joseph Lessard, a planning and urban rail consultant who served as an Austin assistant city manager in the 1990s, also threw his hat into the ring.

The applicant pool also included people who worked for federal agencies, headed the Texas Veterans Land Board and led the Wyoming Lottery Corp. Others included an ex-firefighter who’s written a book about owning restaurants and a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent who wrote that he’d completed an internship with a county Planning and Zoning Office in 1988.

Of the 44 applicants, eight were women, four were black, and seven were Hispanic.

Russell Reynolds narrowed the list to nine semifinalists whom the City Council interviewed in October and November. At that time, the Statesman identified Cronk, Lazarus, Miami City Manager Daniel Alfonso, former Tulsa City Manager Jim Twombly and Chattanooga Chief Operating Officer Maura Black Sullivan.

The city later named Seattle Transportation Director Scott Kubly, former General Services Administrator Denise Turner Roth and public housing builder Cecil House as among the first round of interviewees.

The ninth, who hid her face behind a folder as she entered the council’s interview room, appears to be Sylvia Garcia, chief operating officer of the Chicago Transit Authority.

Newton said he was pleased with the people invited back for follow-up interviews, and with Cronk as the final pick.

Drawing city manager applicants for a city as large as Austin can be a challenge, because most large cities have strong mayors who serve as the city’s executive, rather than hiring a professional manager to run the city day to day. Austin is the fifth-largest city in the country to have a city manager, after Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas and San Jose.

Council members picked Russell Reynolds, a corporate headhunting firm that had never conducted a city manager search before, over companies that specialized in such public entity searches, because council members said they wanted to cast a wider net for candidates. Russell Reynolds was the most expensive of the options, set to make a third of the manager’s first year salary, plus fees and expenses.

City records show the firm has been authorized to receive $134,800 from Austin and has been paid $126,205 of it so far.

Prior to the city manager records battle, area agencies tried to block public scrutiny of other potential public leaders. The city kept secret its 51 applicants to lead Austin’s library system, until narrowing it to three finalists. Capital Metro also kept secret its applicants, until reaching a short list of four, for the transit system’s CEO post.

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