Herman: Can Austin outrun Runaway Bay in battle for new city manager?

5:33 p.m Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 Opinion
You may know Brackettville as the home of the Alamo, the one built for the 1960 John Wayne movie, not the one inconveniently located in downtown San Antonio. Brackettville is among Texas towns Austin officials say could poach it city manager candidates if the list of Austin finalists were made public. DARRELL BYERS / FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

It’s big-time, big-league competition that, if Austin prevails, could shape the city’s future for decades to come. The battle for Amazon’s new headquarters is high-stakes, hand-to-hand economic development combat.

Amazon says 238 locales have submitted proposals. The field is formidable, including New York, San Diego, Phoenix, Washington, Seattle, Boston, Dallas-Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia, Watauga, Shoreacres, Brackettville, Runaway Bay and Sachse.

Hang on a second. Watauga? Shoreacres? Brackettville? Runaway Bay? Sachse? (Pronunciation help on that last one: Think of the 1978 Rod Stewart hit “Do Ya Think I’m Sachse?”)

RELATED: City claims competition to keep candidates secret

My mistake. I’m now being told those five are Texas cities (Hamlets? Villages? Somewhat wide places in the farm-to-market road?) that are not competing with Austin for the Amazon HQ2 project and the 50,000 jobs it will bring. Austin city officials claim those five locales and 11 other smallish Texas cities are competing with Austin in another battle that will shape the city for decades to come.

We need a city manager. So do 16 other Texas cities you wouldn’t think compete with Austin, the nation’s 11th most populous city, for anything.

The American-Statesman and others, citing the Texas Public Information Act, want the city to release the names of the candidates to replace City Manager Marc Ott, who left town more than a year ago. The city — citing, among other factors, the fact that 16 small Texas cities also are looking for a city manager — refuses to release the names.

The city made its case in a letter to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton from Assistant City Attorney Neal Falgoust.

“The city is competing in a limited marketplace to attract qualified individuals. As of the date of this letter, the Texas Municipal League indicated there are 16 city administrator/city manager positions open in the State of Texas,” Falgoust told Paxton.

The league list included the cities referenced above and Humble, Alice, Somerset, Bowie, Glenn Heights, Olney, Martindale, Plains, Hallsville and Springtown.

Falgoust argues that identifying the folks Austin is considering “would allow the city’s competitors in this marketplace — other governmental entities seeking an administrator or manager and private companies seeking executives — to approach the same individuals with competing offers of employment.”

IN THEIR WORDS: Council members explain secrecy on city manager candidates

Yes, I guess a private company could be a real competitor salarywise. But I’m thinking the city of Austin, without a major tax hike, should be able to offer a better compensation package than (insert name of any of the 16 cities listed above).

Let’s take a look at some of the competition.

Watauga’s up in Tarrant County. According to Watauga’s 2015 Comprehensive Financial Report, the city’s largest employer is Target with 245 workers. Also in the top 10 are Harvest Baptist Church (100 employees), Cotton Patch Cafe (54) and Chili’s (52). The report also tells us Watauga “comprises a total of approximately four square miles” and had 23,510 residents as of January 2014.

Runaway Bay, population about 1,400, bills itself as “a unique community nestled along the southern shoreline of Lake Bridgeport, approximately 50 miles northwest of Fort Worth. Runaway Bay is a recreational community offering year-round boating, fishing and golfing as well as many other recreational and social activities.”

Sounds peaceful, though there was some excitement back in January 2010 when the Wise County Messenger headlined a story thusly: “Alleged chupacabra found in Runaway Bay.” For those of you unschooled in folkloric nonsense, a chupacabra is a folkloric-nonsense creature periodically allegedly sighted by people who believe in folkloric nonsense. Look it up. You’ll find the phrase “goat sucker.”

The bunk about the purported sighting in Runaway Bay was debunked when a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department biologist determined the alleged chupacabra was a hairless raccoon. Heretofore, I thought hairless raccoon was folkloric nonsense. The things you learn.

Plains, which has about 1,500 people in its 1-square-mile city limits, is the county seat of Yoakum County and is 13 miles east of the New Mexico border and 59 miles southwest of Lubbock. That places it squarely in the middle of nowhere.

You might know Brackettville as the home of the Alamo, the one built for the 1960 John Wayne movie, not the one inconveniently located in downtown San Antonio. The movie set became Alamo Village, a tourist attraction closed since 2009.

To be fair, we must also note that the Falgoust letter also told Paxton that the International City/County Management Association says there are eight municipal or county management jobs open in areas with populations above 500,000. But the largest city among those that is now seeking a city manager is Sunnyvale, Calif., which has 152,771 residents. Austin’s current population is 947,890.

The bottom line, according to Falgoust, is that release of the candidates’ names “would allow the City’s competitors in this marketplace … to approach the same individuals with competing offers of employment.”

Could happen, I guess. So if you know any of the folks being considered for Austin city manager please don’t let them know that Runaway Bay also is looking. Actually, I have assurances from Runaway Bay Mayor John W. Boyd that his city wouldn’t seek to steal any of the Austin candidates.

“Absolutely not,” Boyd said as he explained the economics of how this works. “The city of Runaway Bay does not have the money to pay like the city of Austin has to pay a city manager. … That’s just kind of the way it works.”

Runaway Bay, which is interviewing a final candidate this week and has an annual budget of $2.4 million, is looking to pay $65,000 to $75,000 a year for a city manager.

In his letter to Paxton, Falgoust noted Austin’s city manager handles a “nearly $4 billion budget.” And interim City Manager Elaine Hart is pulling down $306,233 a year, plus deferred compensation.

The Statesman sued the city of Austin on Tuesday in Travis County state District Court, arguing in the filing that the public has a “longstanding right to learn the names and qualifications of candidates for one of the most important jobs in city government.”

READ: Statesman sleuthing IDs city manager hopefuls as interviews start

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