The search for a new Austin city manager is down to two candidates: Ann Arbor City Administrator Howard Lazarus, who previously served as Austin’s public works director, and Minneapolis City Coordinator Spencer Cronk, City Council members agreed Thursday.
Cronk and Lazarus will come to Austin next week to meet with city department heads, employee stakeholder groups, unions and the public before having final interviews with the council.
The decision brings Austin close to a final hire after more than a year without a permanent city manager and after a tumultuous search process. After the council voted to keep the entire process secret until making a final decision, American-Statesman reporters staked out interviews and identified candidates — prompting city officials and Austin’s headhunting firm to take elaborate measures to evade media attention.
Eventually, the council reversed its decision to maintain complete secrecy and released six finalists’ names. The Statesman has sued the city for leaving its posted meeting location during the Nov. 2 candidate interviews and for refusing to fill a public information request for information related to the search.
The two remaining candidates are perhaps the most traditional of the council’s finalists, as the only two who were city administrators or managers. The others considered were Scott Kubly, director of the Seattle Department of Transportation; Maura Black Sullivan, chief operating officer of Chattanooga, Tenn.; Cecil House, an attorney overseeing public-sector construction for New York’s Gilbane Building Co.; and Denise Turner Roth, a senior adviser for construction consulting firm WSP.
Cronk, 38, has been the city administrator of Minneapolis, population 413,651, since 2014. Originally from Minnesota, he has worked for New York City and within Minnesota’s Department of Administration, where he led state purchasing.
At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Cronk wrote in a greeting to Minneapolis employees that they couldn’t miss him around the city. In an interview with the Statesman last week, he called that city similar to Austin, with high growth and community engagement. He’d like to bring his strategies to Austin, and he and his husband would like to put down roots here and start a family, he said.
Lazarus, 61, is a former Austin city employee. He spent eight years as public works director here, departing last year to lead Ann Arbor, Mich., population 120,782. He previously worked as an engineering director in New Jersey and served in the military.
Lazarus has also drawn similarities between Austin and his current city as both are college towns with similar values, according to the Ann Arbor News. Council members there told the paper they would be disappointed to lose him, while former Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez tweeted that Lazarus is “Wicked smart and (has an) incredible sense of humor.”
The person hired will have daily responsibility over all city departments, a $3.9 billion budget and more than 17,000 employees — a role often served by mayors in other cities without a council-manager form of government. Austin is the fifth-largest city in the United States to have a city manager serve as the city’s executive, rather than a strong mayor.
Austin’s previous city manager, Marc Ott, left in September 2016, for a job in Washington, D.C.
Cronk and Lazarus are expected to return Tuesday to Austin, per a recommendation from Stephen Newton, a consultant with search firm Russell Reynolds. He and Austin’s Human Resources Department recommended the candidates meet with city employee stakeholder groups Tuesday, before holding forums with the public Tuesday evening.
City employees and the public will be able to provide input with an online form, Human Resources Director Joya Hayes said.
On Wednesday under the plan, the council would interview each candidate for an hour and a half. The City Council would meet the next week, on Dec. 18 and 19, to make a final decision on the hire.
After a process marked by extreme efforts to maintain secrecy, a couple of council members Thursday expressed an interest in having public input on the candidates.
Newton refused to commit to releasing the résumés of the final two candidates, citing the lawsuit from the Statesman seeking that information and saying he would have to check with attorneys.
“I would really like an affirmative answer to that,” Council Member Leslie Pool pressed.
Council Member Ora Houston repeatedly expressed concerns about the short time frame of letting constituents in her district know about the opportunity for public input. Many constituents do not closely follow council actions and need time to plan, she said.