Austin abandons transparency in search for a new city manager

The Austin City Council should reverse its decision to conduct a secret search for the next city manager to lead Austin, one of the fastest-growing metropolises in the nation.

A closed search would obstruct Austin residents from having a meaningful say in the selection of a manager charged with running most every aspect of city government, either directly or indirectly. It’s a job that helps determine Austin’s quality of life, cultural vitality and global image.

Consider that it is the manager who is responsible for city services or departments that recycle and pick up trash; maintain libraries, parks and streets; turn on power in Austin homes; and provide households with water and wastewater services.

And it’s the manager who influences the workings of the Austin police and fire departments through the chiefs hired by the manager to run those agencies. When a storm floods homes and property, the manager ultimately is accountable for the city’s response. And as importantly, it’s the manager who is tasked with carrying out policies of elected council members.

In Austin, the manager’s job has been compared to that of a CEO of a large corporation. Just as CEOs answer to boards and stockholders, Austin’s city manager answers directly to the council and to the residents of Austin, albeit to a lesser extent. It is not uncommon for residents to publicly take a manager’s decision to task.

For those and other reasons, residents have a huge stake in the next person the council hires to replace former City Manager Marc Ott, who left in October. Doing business in the dark is a bad idea that could backfire in a city that highly values transparency and citizen engagement.

Without the kind of buy-in from the community afforded by an open search, the person hired for the post no doubt would start under a cloud of public skepticism. That is part of the reason for the sinking fortunes of former Austin schools Superintendent Meria Carstarphen.

Austin school district trustees hired Carstarphen behind closed doors and only released her name when she emerged as the single finalist for the job. Many Austin residents didn’t look favorably on Carstarphen’s preference for confidentiality, which turned out to be a harbinger of her opaque administration. Similarly, they aren’t likely to look kindly on a finalist for city manager who also prefers confidentiality over openness.

Like many others, we’re baffled regarding the council’s decision to disenfranchise residents from such an important decision given the city’s history otherwise — and the high caliber of executives who emerged from prior, more open searches, such as Ott, former Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo and former Police Monitor Margo Frasier

Up to now, there rightly has been a recognition that certain, high-profile jobs benefit from public input and engagement. And it has been useful for the public to meet finalists or semifinalists and gauge their interactions with segments of Austin’s diverse community — prior to the city extending a job offer.

Despite that, Adler told the editorial board that the council, following the advice of its search firm, made a “forced choice,” between “mutually exclusive” goals of transparency and luring the best possible applicants for the job.

In that trade-off – an artificial one in our view — transparency lost out, as American-Statesman writer Elizabeth Findell reported recently.

Veering from tradition and conventional practices of other large Texas cities, such as Dallas and Fort Worth, the council last month selected the global Russell Reynolds Associates firm to do a confidential search. In the first phase, the firm with offices in Houston would solicit public input on what criteria it should look for in a successor to Ott.

But that is where public engagement and transparency begins — and ends.

Behind closed doors, the search firm would recruit applicants, whittle down the pool to five or 10 finalists, then hand off that list of semifinalists to the Austin City Council. The council would pick finalists and hold interviews in secret.

Only when there is a single finalist — meaning the man or woman the council picks for the manager job — would his or her name become public. The goal of doing things out of the public view is to attract the biggest, best pool possible, Adler and a search firm official said.

But neither the mayor nor the search firm could point to data to substantiate that keeping secret the names of job applicants – and in particular, semifinalists — yields a bigger or better pool.

Certainly the work of a search firm is made easier if it can recruit candidates with an invisible hand that keeps their employers in the dark. It’s also true that a secret search gives comfort and security to executives whose intentions are masked as they seek employment elsewhere.

But that does a disservice to all other parties and can be particularly detrimental in the public sector. Consider that when a key executive is secretly hired away from a school district or city, it can and does trigger instability. An open search permits proper planning for such transitions.

Taxpayers are paying the Russell Reynolds firm as much as $122,800 to conduct a search for Austin’s new city manager. For their money, Austin residents should at least get a meaningful say and opportunity to meet and quiz finalists.

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